A plot of land sprawling six square kilometres has been cordoned off at the northeastern edge of St. Thomas, Ont. as the provincial and municipal governments clear the way for a major automotive investment in the southwestern Ontario city.
The 1,500-acre (600-hectare), shovel-ready site is the final component needed for Ontario to “lure” the next big electric vehicle or battery supply chain investor to the province, said Vic Fedeli, the province’s minister of economic development, job creation and trade.
“With the EV segment, everybody is trying to find a spot, get married to a spot, get going, and we wanted to make sure that when they looked at Ontario, they had at least one mega-site to look at,” he told Automotive News Canada March 3.
The St. Thomas Economic Development Corp., began work to assemble the site about two years ago, according to the organization’s CEO Sean Dyke.
In June 2022, the city agreed to purchase about 800 acres as part of this plan, and today, St. Thomas controls nearly all of the 1,500-acre site. Several final land acquisitions have yet to close on the “periphery” of the property Dyke added.
Prior to March 2, however, most of the land fell outside St. Thomas’s boundaries.
The province stepped in late last month to change this. On Feb. 22, it introduced Bill 63, which proposed annexing a portion of the neighbouring municipality of Central Elgin for St. Thomas. The legislation breezed through three readings and debates at Queen’s Park over the following eight days and received royal assent March 2.
Redrawing the map of St. Thomas will cut down on the “procedural and administrative nuisances” created when a plant straddles municipal barriers, said Brendan Sweeney, managing director of the Trillium Network for Advanced Manufacturing, which advocates on behalf of Ontario’s manufacturing industry. He pointed to issues such as the delivery of utilities and taxation.
“There’s not going to be a dividing line where if you’re in the paint shop, you’re in [one city], but if you’re in the weld shop, you’re in a different township.”
Having a single site owner and single local government eliminates uncertainty for prospective investors, Fedeli added.
“We can now confidently speak to prospects worldwide that we’ve got an opportunity for them to step in and begin development quickly.”
The site itself, Dyke said, is bookended by two railway lines, has strong highway links and excellent tie-ins to electrical and gas infrastructure.
The community also has deep automotive roots, he added. It was home to Ford Motor Co.’s St. Thomas Assembly, as well as the Daimler-owned Sterling Truck Corp. plant, before both were shuttered following the 2008 financial crisis.
Fedeli would not say whether the province was pitching investors interested in the entire 1,500-acre site, or a portion of it, but said having such a large site “puts us on a lot of lists … we weren’t able to be on previously.”
Even relative to other large automotive campuses elsewhere in Ontario, the site in St. Thomas stands out.
Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Inc.’s complex in Woodstock, Ont., for instance, is roughly 1,000 acres (400 hectares). In Alliston, Ont., Honda of Canada Mfg.’s three-plant campus sits on 890 acres (360 hectares). The recently announced Nextstar Energy Inc., battery plant being built in Windsor, Ont., will occupy a 220-acre (89-hectare) plot.
Given the size of the property in St. Thomas, Dyke said he expects more than one company to occupy it, but he would not write off the possibility of a single large investor.
Fedeli, who has met frequently with a series of Germany- and Japan-based automakers over the past two years, would not comment on what company tops his call sheet.
Yet the provincial and federal governments have stayed in particularly close touch with Volkswagen Group over the previous three months, lobbying records show. Rumours the German automaker was pursuing the St. Thomas site were also raised more than once in the legislative debate over Bill 63 at Queen’s Park in February.
Volkswagen pointed to Canada in December as “one logical option” for its battery subsidiary PowerCo’s first North American battery cell plant, though it stopped short of identifying the country as the only jurisdiction it was exploring.
The company has since refrained from commenting publicly on its cell plant site search, but has registered more than two dozen staff as lobbyists in Ontario, including Volkswagen CEO Oliver Blume and a range of PowerCo employees with site selection, human resources, and facility and civil engineering responsibilities.
Fedeli would not comment on whether Volkswagen was weighing an investment in the site.
“We continue to work with a large number of worldwide, well-known multinationals who are looking around the world at sites for their expansions.”
Volkswagen, meantime, is reportedly inching toward a decision on a location for its first North American cell plant.
The company announced plans to build a new US$2 billion assembly plant in South Carolina following a board meeting March 3. The planned battery plant was also expected to be up for discussion, Reuters reported prior to the meeting, though unlike the confirmation of the U.S. assembly operation, no cell plant announcement followed.