Public First’s ‘Windsor Works’ economic regeneration strategy for Windsor, Ontario

One of our policy specialisms at Public First is economic growth and development.  Over recent years we have supported a range of public and private sector clients to understand and adapt to the employment and skills challenges posed by new technology, market disruptions, and political trends flowing from macro agendas like net zero and events like Brexit.

Our expertise is now being recognised in other markets where we operate and in 2020, we were commissioned by the City of Windsor, Ontario, to advise on economic development and to propose a growth and diversification strategy for the city.  The Mayor, upon his re-election in 2018 had made the need to diversify Windsor’s economy a key goal, and by commissioning Public First, the city was seeking an outside perspective on their relative strengths and an objective assessment of how best to achieve this goal.

Our final report, titled “Windsor Works”, was published by the Mayor’s office last week and outlines a strategy and suite of policy recommendations for Windsor to build off its existing strengths and meet some current challenges so that it can become the best community for Canada’s working families.

Windsor is historically an automotive manufacturing city, which was hit hard by offshoring and the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Like other post-industrial cities, Windsor has seen falls in income, a reduction in shifts at major assembly plants and an outflow of local graduate talent.

The city now faces the difficult challenge of trying to reposition its industry and workforce for the future economy, while coping with the short-term impact of a closed border and the fiscal impact of Covid-19. However, there are many factors that make Windsor unique and work in its favour – including its growing population, housing affordability, disciplined city governance, good quality of life and low crime rate, and most importantly, geography – notably, its proximity to the large US market and the leisure and cultural amenities of its major urban neighbour, the city of Detroit, which is itself undergoing a revival.

We used several methods to identify what strategies would work best for Windsor, including:

  • In-depth qualitative research with dozens of political, business, and institutional leaders across the Windsor-Essex region, as well as experts in the automotive industry and on cities and growth;
  • Extensive analysis of the academic literature on the growth and performance of cities;
  • In-depth case studies of comparator cities in the US and Europe, and the experiences of other border towns and cities worldwide;
  • Quantitative research, including a poll to understand perceptions of Windsor within Canada, and a comparative analysis of Windsor internationally and nationally including compiling a basket of measures for 30 comparable post-industrial cities.

The first part of our research involved an extensive analysis on how and why cities prosper, as well as what those findings mean for Windsor. We found four key factors for growth and prosperity:

  1. 1. Scale. Bigger, integrated city-regions often diversify and enjoy the economic advantages of scale. The evidence for the benefits of ‘agglomeration’ were some of the strongest in the review and highly relevant to a medium-sized city like Windsor on the border of a major urban area of over 4 million residents, which are already integrated economically.
  2. 2. Sectors & Clusters. Many turn-around stories from so-called ‘rust belt’ cities have relied on investment in research and development. The evidence, however, suggests it is hard to force a city to sprout an entirely new sector top-down. Instead, cities must build upon organically growing sectors.

  3. 3. People & Culture
    . Successful cities have a close relationship between population growth and cultural diversity. A virtuous cycle, in which great jobs attract skilled workers, who in turn provide the income to sustain (and demand for) good cultural amenities. This is both an educational challenge and a developmental one: highly-skilled workers want to live in a cosmopolitan place that is safe, attractive and where there is plenty to do.

  4. 4. Competitiveness
    . Infrastructure, regulations, and tax policies have a significant impact in making a city more competitive and attractive to businesses, as well as encouraging growth. Cities can also utilise land and municipal grant incentives to attract inward investment, although the impact of these is mixed.

We then synthesised the findings from our various strands of research to develop our long-term economic strategy, tailored to the specific needs of Windsor.  We branded this four-pillar strategy for the city as L.I.F.T –

Location. When the pandemic passes and borders reopen, Windsor should take more advantage of its geographical position and work more closely with Detroit and Michigan. Forge closer connections at all levels between both cities, create new incentives for businesses, foster a cross-border culture, and promote the Windsor-Detroit region with more joint events and initiatives that exploit the rich heritage and shared identity of the two cities.

Infrastructure. The City must invest to meet growth. Improving the downtown districts, completing riverfront developments as well as other developable employment lands, providing new and enhanced mobility options, and planning ahead will allow Windsor to seize forthcoming opportunities that flow from a new international bridge and major new hospital due to open this decade.

Future economy. Windsor should build on its manufacturing strength to become a hub for new innovation and the auto sector of the future. In the long-term, the City should also diversify into adjacent sectors where it already has a presence, such as the business of borders and health care. Electric vehicles and automobility present huge opportunities for Windsor, along with more niche sectors that will support the auto industry’s transition, including cyber security, data, and advanced manufacturing.

Talent. The City should do more to work with partners to attract, train and retain top talent and to meet the skills needs of local employers. The city’s post-secondary institutions should be more closely tethered to Windsor’s economic development agenda.  New partnerships should seek to attract more skilled migrants and focus on R&D and tailored programmes that will support entrepreneurs and local businesses in those sectors primed for future growth.

The report went to a special meeting of the Windsor City Council on 8 February and after eight hours of debate and dozens of delegates providing their input and response, the strategy was  unanimously endorsed by Council.  The report has received positive media coverage, especially in local news, such as CTV and the WindsorStar.

Public First is looking forward to seeing how the city takes forward the strategy in the months and years ahead, and is exploring how to deploy some of the unique insights developed throughout this project to help other cities position themselves for the future economy.

If you are interested in learning more about our Windsor project, please contact Blair Gibbs.