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“Sleeper” towns now wide awake to investors in Manitoba

Brandon, Portage la Prairie and Steinbach among the hot spots for investment in Canada’s central province
portage la prairie
Portage la Prairie has attracted $1.2 billion worth of new business and development in the past two years alone. Shown is the site for the new $400 million Roquette food processing plant. | Submitted

Manitoba economic development officials give notice that economic and real estate opportunities are thriving outside of Winnipeg’s Perimeter Highway.

Certainly the bulk of the province’s population of 1.3 million is concentrated in the capital city, but communities such as Brandon, Portage la Prairie and Steinbach are hitting above their weight when it comes to growth and new development. Some may call them “sleeper” communities, but they have awakened the interest of big players.

There’s no better example than Portage la Prairie, located about 45 minutes west of Winnipeg. Over the last 24 months, the city of 13,300 has locked down $1.2 billion worth of new investment. That’s billion with a “b.”

The momentum started building two years ago when Roquette, a France-based company, announced plans to build a $400 million pea protein processing facility in town. A year later, Simplot Canada unveiled plans for a $460 million expansion to more than double production at its potato processing facility and the tonnage of spuds it would need from local growers. 

Then McCain Foods announced a $45 million reinvestment in its own potato processing plant and Green Sky Labs, a producer of medicinal cannabis, finalized plans for a $25 million plant in nearby Newton.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been more optimistic,” said Vern May, executive director of Portage Regional Economic Development.

All of the development will result in more than 500 new jobs in town, with hiring starting near the end of this year and continuing into 2020. All those people are going to need places to live, and more than 400 new apartments, townhouses and condominiums are currently under construction to meet the demand.

A number of well-known restaurant and food services banners are coming to town, too, including Mr. Mikes Steakhouse, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and Booster Juice.

May said his pitch to potential investors in the region includes having the best hydro rates in North America, an attractive attribute to growing industries including cannabis, data centres and Bitcoin mining.

“The Roquette announcement was a big eye-opener for people for what’s possible in Manitoba outside of Winnipeg,” May said.


Eyes are wide open in Steinbach, too. In fact, things are so good in the community of about 17,000, which is located 45 minutes southeast of Winnipeg, that they’re running out of land. The city recently completed a land annexation of about 2,700 acres from the neighbouring rural municipality of Hanover because business demand has outgrown the existing space.

“We’re always looking forward to ensure the long-term viability of Steinbach,” said Troy Warkentin, Steinbach city manager.

A new commercial development started coming up out of the ground last fall. The first phase of Steinbach North Business Park, which will have commercial, office, retail and services on nearly 80 acres of land, is scheduled to open this summer.

The first three phases of Schinkel Properties’ Steinbach North will cover 48 acres. Another 50 acres on the west side of the property that will be developed as demand warrants.

Warkentin points to the city’s taxable assessment of all industrial, institutional, commercial and residential property to gauge the city’s growth. It was $526 million in 2010, and eight years later it had nearly doubled to about $939 million.

Last year also saw about $57 million in building permits taken out, the same as the year before, and while that’s less than the record permit value of $122 million in 2012, it’s clear that real estate development, particularly in commercial and institutional with schools, remains strong.

Of course, you need people to support all of the activity, and Steinbach has been growing its population by 3.7 per cent annually for the last 15 years. According to the most recent census figures, the city had a population of 15,829 in 2016.

Much of the growth is directly attributable to Steinbach’s active immigration policy over the past decade, which has seen people from the Philippines and other parts of Asia and Europe come to town to put down roots. The average number of new arrivals per year from 2011 to 2016 was 740.

Agriculture has always played a significant role in the health of the region, but now,  with manufacturing, transportation, pharmaceuticals, retail and financial services playing bigger roles, Steinbach’s economic base is better able to weather any economic cycles, Warkentin said.

With Winnipeg less than an hour away, the city has always had some tough competition close at hand, but Warkentin said local business owners have always found a way to make it work in their trading area, which he estimates is about 80,000 people and draws shoppers from as far away as northwestern Ontario.


Private-sector investment is fuelling the optimism in Manitoba’s second-biggest city. 

Elisabeth Saftiuk, executive director of the Brandon Downtown Development Corp., said a number of projects in the central business district are breathing new life into formerly abandoned buildings.

For example, the former Central Fire Station, which was built in 1911 and served as the city’s fire- hall for many decades, has found a new use after sitting empty for a few years. Local entrepreneur Anna Dumas opened the Prairie Firehouse restaurant three years ago, a destination location for sampling delicious local cuisine.

“We are simply lucky that she chose this building and our downtown. This redevelopment has been nothing short of transformational for this stretch of Princess Avenue,” Saftiuk said.

The redevelopment of the Fraser Block, a 129-year-old building on Rosser Avenue, is another example. A local dermatologist and his wife bought the long-vacant three-storey property, opened a coffee shop on the main floor and are transforming the second and third floors into a day spa.

“It will be a tourist draw, which will be critically important for the city,” according to Saftiuk.

These projects have been facilitated with Brandon’s redevelopment grant, an incentive program that will fund a maximum of 25 per cent of the total project costs up to $175,000. The rent abatement program has also been integral in Brandon’s ability to attract new businesses to its downtown.

“We are experiencing great momentum downtown but there remains great opportunity. We have available properties – I prefer that term over ‘vacant’– and many available storefronts. I will be working hard to fill these high-traffic spaces with unique businesses that attract residents and tourists alike into the neighbourhood and improve the downtown experience for everyone,” she said.

The final word goes to Portage la Prairie’s May. Before coming to Portage la Prairie, he used to work in a similar capacity in both Minnedosa and Souris, where he was constantly dealing with the chicken-and-egg scenario.

“It was always, ‘How many new storefronts did you open?’ But first you need to create the jobs. Then the storefronts come,” May said. 


Churchill, which has the only Arctic port in Canada, is again open for business. And, due to climate change, the port could play an expanding role in shipments of everything from grain to oil.

The northern Manitoba community and deepwater port on Hudson Bay lost its only land link to the rest of Canada in May 2017 when flooding and washouts severed the line.

U.S.-based Omnitrax had owned the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill since 1997. 

Onmitrax sold the line and port last August to Arctic Gateway Group LP. Once the sale was finalized, work began  on repairing the line, which was completed in November of last year.

The federal government contributed $117 million for the acquisition and repair of the rail line.

“Today’s announcement marks the beginning of a new chapter for Churchill,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said as the line opened.

The Hudson Bay Route Association, which advocates for moving grain through the northern port, is pleased with the reopening of the rail line.

“It’s great news. It’s a long time coming,” said the association’s president Elden Boon.

He expects regular rail service to Churchill to begin in the near future and said the Arctic Gateway Group is now focusing on the port. In its heyday, grain exports through Churchill averaged about 500,000 tonnes per year.

 Actic Gateway foresees moving pulses, wheat and canola through Churchill in the future, Boon added.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister noted the Port of Churchill is Canada’s only inland deep-sea port and a part of the mid-continental trade corridor. “The port has intrinsic advantages. With climate change, the port will have a broader season, potentially, than it’s had,” he said.

The warming climate has already added a month to the shipping season in Hudson Bay compared with 30 years ago, accordimg to a University of Manitoba study.

Between 2030 and 2050, some models predict sea ice around Churchill’s port could  begin to look like that in the Baltic Sea, where shipping is open year-round.