Big Feet

They are service hubs, centres of research and innovation, cultural goldmines, homes to industry and bedroom communities. However you define them, Newfoundland and Labrador’s five largest municipalities make one heck of an economic footprint.

Though it is still often defined by the traditional (romanticised) cultural mosaic of the rural fishing village, Newfoundland and Labrador is an increasingly urban and urbane society. As the rural population dwindles, the province’s major municipalities are, generally, the beneficiaries of the change, posting healthy retail sales and expanding business communities. In this feature report, Atlantic Business Magazine takes a closer look at the province’s five most-heavily populated municipalities, a handful of cities and towns who together account for over half of the province’s GDP.

Included under each municipality is a list of the major public and private capital projects and spending programs for each region, as published in the provincial government’s document, The Economy 2010, released with the annual budget. While the combined capital projects of the five municipalities total just under than $2-billion, less than 10 per cent of the $21-billion planned or underway in the province, it must be noted that the provincial total includes many provincial programs, as well as such big-ticket items as the $7-to-$11-billion Hebron development and the $3-billion Vale Inco nickel processing plant at Long Harbour. For more information: (Note: population figures are from the 2006 census.)

City of St. John’s (pop. 100,645)

Embracing urbanization
As Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital city, it’s not surprising that St. John’s has the largest economic footprint of any municipality in the province. “St. John’s is unique in this province and it’s iconic,” says Derek Sullivan, chair of the St. John’s Board of Trade, referencing the city’s striking geography and landmarks. “St. John’s has a lot of prominence, as a centre of artistic excellence and … as a driver and centre of business and prosperity.”

In fact, the St. John’s Census Metropolitan Area (which includes neighbours Mount Pearl and Conception Bay South, also on this list) actually accounts for 50 per cent of the total provincial GDP and 37 per cent of the province’s population. It is the province’s indisputable post-secondary, retail, arts and cultural centre as well as home to the largest airport, university, hospitals and government offices. Indeed, one in five businesses in Newfoundland and Labrador are located in St. John’s, Sullivan points out, noting that many of the companies working in the province’s oil and gas industry have corporate offices in the city.

It’s a fact worth noting: St. John’s (and the province overall) weathered the recent recession handily, largely thanks to the continued interest in oil exploration and production. “We’ve had 15 years of growth in the offshore energy sector,” Sullivan says, calling it an “absolute” transformation in the city. “Just look at the number of restaurants, at the kind of restaurants that are here … and we’ve got another strong 10 years for sure.”

While some may bemoan the global trend of populations moving out of rural areas and towards urban centres (St. John’s has increased in population every year since 2000), Sullivan prefers to look at the positives. Innovation, research and development need a critical mass to thrive, he points out, and St. John’s is building an international reputation as a centre of ocean excellence for this reason.

“Urbanization presents opportunities to the province,” he says. “You can try to fight urbanization, or you try to embrace the opportunities and prosper by it.”

Major Capital Projects 2010: $1,200.3-million
All figures in millions

Property developments and subdivisions: $428
Health care facilities: $365.4
University buildings, projects and residences: $100.8
Multi-purpose facility (Pleasantville): $101
Commercial buildings: $56.5
RNC Headquarters redevelopment: $50
Metrobus terminal: $34.2
Condo, apartment, residential developments: $24
YMCA: $15
Sheraton Hotel renovations: $10
Vera Perlin Society renovations: $4
Colonial Building restoration: $2.5
Indoor soccer facility: $7.2
Industrial land: $1.7

City of Corner Brook (pop. 26,625)

The ‘mini-capital’
Don’t let anyone – or population statistics – tell you differently: “We’re still the Second City,” says Mel Woodman, president of the Corner Brook Board of Trade. “We’re still the centre hub and the only city on the west coast of the island.” R.J. Locke of Corner Brook’s Business Resource Centre prefers the term “mini-capital” for describing the city’s importance to western Newfoundland.

Corner Brook provides retail, health and other services to close to 100,000 people. With a vibrant port, three educational institutions (Memorial University’s Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, College of the North Atlantic and Academy Canada) and a total of 740 businesses, Corner Brook has much to offer the “left coast” of the island. Including employment: the city’s population can rise to 40,000 residents during the workday.

Corner Brook began as a mill town; Corner Brook Pulp and Paper is still the historical and geographic heart of the city, but no longer the main employer. “You always hear stories of the mill closing, but it’s still going,” says Woodman. “And if it does close, well, we’ll just have to fill in the gaps.”

Significant gap fillers are the nearby Marble Mountain ski resort and Gros Morne National Park (which attracted over 174,000 visitors in 2009) which contribute to the city’s draw as a tourism destination. Furthermore, as a service centre for the region, Corner Brook also meets the needs of other primary resource workers. “There’s mining on the west coast, gold and other minerals, all in proximity of the city’s economy,” Woodman says.

The great hope for the future? Oil and gas. There’s more than 1.3 hectares under exploration on the west coast. “This has the potential to be very prosperous,” Woodman says. In the meantime, “the economy is humming right along.” He might be right: housing starts are up, vacancy rates are down, and there is more than $1-billion in infrastructure investments planned for the next 10 years.

Major Capital Projects 2010: $249.5-million+
All figures in millions

Academic buildings and residences: $101.9
Long-term care home: $68.5
Water and sewage treatment facilities $51.2
Condominium development: $14
Subdivision $6.5
Paper Mill Expenditures $4.7
Municipal Transportation Related Improvements $2.7
Hospital (new) TBD

City of Mount Pearl (pop. 24, 805)

Parks and industrial parks
In the first half of the 20th century, Mount Pearl was a resort destination for affluent St. John’s residents, particularly those with a love of horse-racing. Times change, and the only hints of this past that remain within the city’s boundaries are a few dwindling farms, agricultural areas and a well-maintained trail system.

Tight up against the border of St. John’s, Mount Pearl is best known for its family-friendly services and new residential neighbourhoods. “Mount Pearl is a bedroom community, you can’t get around that,” says Mount Pearl councillor Lucy Stoyles, head of the city’s economic development committee. “Every big city has them; you need the competition between the regions to keep (housing) prices in order.”

While a significant number of Mount Pearl residents commute to St. John’s daily, Mount Pearl does have a distinct economy of its own. Besides its retail and service offerings, Mount Pearl is also home to some of the major oil and gas players in the region. Halliburton Energy Services, Schlumberger Canada, Baker Hughes, Rolls-Royce (marine), Expro Group and others have large offices, storage and/or manufacturing facilities in the city’s industrial areas. These sites are also home to mining consulting companies, technology and communications businesses, construction and manufacturing facilities and more. In all, the city is home to over 50 manufacturing firms and 60 construction firms.

At 470 acres, Donovan’s Business Park is one of the largest industrial parks in the province, with more than 375 businesses and close to 6,000 workers. As of 2009, all land within the Park had been sold and is in use. Two other industrial parks (one just being developed in 2010) are filling up quickly as well.

Stoyles admits the economy of Mount Pearl is tightly tied to its neighbouring municipalities. “The biggest myth is that we’re always fighting with St. John’s and the other towns,” she says. “But we’re always interested in working together; it’s the only way to economic development in this region.”

Major Capital Projects 2010: $360.2- million
All figures in millions

Community development: $250
Recreation complex: $45
Subdivision development: $40
Subdivision development: $15
Seniors’ condominium development: $7
Trailer repair facility: $3.2

Town of Conception Bay South (pop. 21, 860)

Bedrooms and better weather
Conception Bay South (CBS) is arguably the largest and fastest growing town in Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s become a popular destination for those moving to the capital region, with new housing developments and construction progressing at a healthy pace.

Chief administrative officer Keith Arns says housing starts will reach an all-time high of 300 in 2010; A 100-acre commercial development (read: big box stores) will begin development in 2010 as well.

The attraction? “It’s the charm, the amenities and the climate,” says Arn.

CBS is less than 20 kilometres from St. John’s and has more sunshine as well as less wind, fog and snow than neighbouring municipalities. Built along a 26-km stretch of coastline, the town boasts many striking views and still maintains significant woodlands and agricultural areas.

There are more than 450 businesses in CBS, most focusing on meeting the daily needs of residents – supermarkets, hardware stores, restaurants and other retail outlets. The port at Long Harbour is used by a number of major companies, including Woodward’s Oil, Country Ribbon Ltd., St. Lawrence Cement and other energy operations.

Arn says that while the majority of CBS residents commute to St. John’s and surrounding areas for employment, this bedroom community “is growing by leaps and bounds.”

Major Capital Projects 2010: $20.4-million
All figures in millions

CBS Bypass extension: $14.4
CNA Seal Cove campus upgrades: $6
Legion Road development: TBA

Town of Grand Falls-Windsor (pop. 13,740)

From pulp and paper to cranberries and gold
Grand Falls began as a company town; in 2009 the pulp and paper mill that started it all officially shut its doors 100 years after operations began. At the time, the mill was the second-largest employer in the area, with some 700 employees. (The provincial health authority, with 1,100 local employees, remains the largest.)

“Change has been thrust upon us,” says Gary Hennessey, the Grand Falls-Windsor Economic Development officer. “Fortunately we’ve been working at developing a pretty diverse economy.”

That diversity now includes cranberry farming. Currently there are 10 new cranberry farms operating in the area, with plans for each to expand substantially to a total of 1,000 acres of cranberry production. At least two of the farms are being operated by former mill workers.

So far, the economic indicators are in Grand Falls-Windsor’s favour: retail sales for the first half of 2010 are higher than they were last year and housing starts are up (60 to June 2010 vs. 16 in 2009). Thirty-five acres of land in the Queensway Business Park were purchased for $1.2-million by Montreal-based Econo-Malls, likely for the construction of box stores.  “Retail follows a strong economy,” comments Hennessey.

But why the good times? Hennessey figures some of the positive growth is due to Alberta money – many displaced mill workers, among others, have found work in Alberta while maintaining their homes (and retail power) in Grand Falls-Windsor – as well as early retirees returning home. The town is also a service centre for about 85,000 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, from the Baie Verte Peninsula to the island’s south coast. As such, it reaps the benefits of burgeoning aquaculture and mining activity (including another recent gold discovery).

Hennessey says the provincial government deserves credit for coming through with support to start new industries and infrastructure in the wake of the mill’s demise. “We’re not just a paper town,” Hennessey says. “Well, we’re not at all, any more. Of course you can’t lose an industry like that and not be affected. But we’re not waiting around … we’re moving on.”

Major Capital Projects 2010: $45.35-million
All figures in millions

Hospital Redevelopment: $30.1
Academic building: $5.5 million
Cranberry industry development: $5.8 million
Treatment centre for youth addictions: $5.0
Downtown development: $3.9

Stephanie Porter
About Stephanie Porter

Stephanie Porter is a freelance writer and editor living in St. John’s. In 2003, she helped launch The Independent, a spirited weekly newspaper distributed across Newfoundland and Labrador, known for its investigative news and features. Stephanie was managing editor of the paper until its untimely demise in 2008. She has also worked as a reporter and writer for Downhome magazine, the Express (also now defunct), The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star, picking up Atlantic Journalism Awards for her feature and news writing. Stephanie is delighted to be a regular contributor to Atlantic Business Magazine. Photo Credit: Paul Daly.

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