With the advent of CentrePort Canada, Winnipeg is fast becoming an inland port of note in North America. That was the message of CentrePort CEO and president Diane Gray during a recent breakfast meeting of the Commercial Division of WinnipegREALTORS® at the Norwood Hotel.
“CentrePort is Canada’s first inland port and Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ), offering tri-modal transportation (road, rail and air),” she told the members. “We’re only three years into what is a multi-decade development.”
As a FTZ, CentrePort can “offer significant tax and cost savings to foreign investors and businesses looking for new ways to bring their products to the North American marketplace,” according to the inland port’s website.
To some, it may seem amusing to refer to a city smack in the midst of the prairie as an inland port, but historically that is just what Winnipeg was in a past life. Well over a 100 years ago, Winnipeg boasted a busy waterfront visited by numerous steamboats, delivering goods from the outside world, which were in turn redistributed, which sounds a lot like the goal of today’s CentrePort.
The levee at the foot of what is now Lombard Avenue was the busiest place in Winnipeg. “One evening this week we strolled along the bank of the noble Red River and were astonished to find the levee transformed into one long business street,” reported the Manitoba Free Press in 1873. “The responsibility for this scale of affairs rests with the proprietors of the flatboats which, from the steamboat landing up to near the immigrant sheds (near The Forks) present an unbroken string of floating merchandise, in some instances two or three tiers deep. These swimming shops are replete with all sorts of articles — groceries, hardware, crockery, provisions, lumber and building materials. Here, in one, you will find conglomerated barrels of green apples and building paper, sugar and cut nails, sacks of oats and packages of confectionary, dried fruit and tobacco. In another you may supply yourself with the materials for building a house, from rough boards to dressed siding and flooring, also window sashes.”
In 1874, imports to the port of Winnipeg reached over $1.7 million compared to just over $918,000 a year earlier. The use of the term “port city” is odd to us today, but that’s exactly what Winnipeg was in the 1870s, in the same manner as St. Paul-Minneapolis, St. Louis or New Orleans along the banks of the Mississippi River. In those days, the Red and Assiniboine Rivers were the community’s lifeblood — a source of contact with the outside world and generator of wealth. On a grander scale, CentrePort will resurrect Winnipeg’s former status as an inland port.
“CentrePort is the largest economic development project in the history of Manitoba,” said Gray. “Industrial space will be connected to the world by multiple modes of transportation. But it’s not just an industrial park. Transportation for the inland port will be critical.”
The priority of transportation is emphasized by CentrePort Canada Way, a $212.4-million divided expressway, which has been 80 per cent completed. Gray said 18,000 trucks a week move along Inkster Boulevard, “so it was a project needed now.”
Gray said Winnipeg’s competitive advantage is savings of 50 per cent on transportation costs due to the city’s central location in North America. CentrePort Way by itself is “expected to create more than 3,236 person years of direct and spin-off employment; save truckers and motorists at least $220 million in fuel, lost time and accidents; and reduce greenhouse gases by 582,000 tonnes over 25 years,” according to the CentrePort’s website.
CentrePort, located next to James Armstrong Richardson International Airport on 20,000 acres of land (municipal and privately owned), has easy access to three Class 1 railways, major trucking companies and sea corridors and gateways. A plan is now underway for a common-use rail facility to enhance CentrePort’s tri-modal transportation advantage of on-site rail, trucking and air cargo carriers.
While the sea corridor is no longer the levee at the foot of Lombard Avenue, Winnipeg does connect to water routes and ships, including Canada’s only deep-water Arctic port at Churchill. Other connections are with Vancouver and Prince Rupert in B.C., New Orleans in the U.S., as well as Montréal, Québec City and Halifax in Eastern Canada.
The gateways include the Asia-Pacific Gateway, the Mid-Continent Trade and Transportation Corridor, the Arctic Gateway and the Atlantic Gateway.
CentrePort will be a doorway to North America and to the world, according to the inland port’s website.
It’s a case of access to “planes, trains, trucks and ships” in one central location.
“This is a spot where you can do international business cheaply and efficiently,” said Gray. “And now, manufacturing companies are rethinking their supply chains, and are coming back to North America to smaller centres that have exceptional transportation.”
CentrePort was created by provincial legislation in 2008, with “a goal to make investment as easy as possible,” according to Gray.
“We connect the dots between businesses and their needs. Ultimately we’re here to work with other private sector partners.”
Gray said the special master plan for land-use, zoning specific to an inland port (such as no conditional use permitted) and transparent fees, “allows companies to get their shovels into the ground within weeks, not months or years, with no government interference.”
So far, over 160 acres of land have been sold in two business parks, with a focus on manufacturing, assembly and distribution, including fresh or frozen food products. CentrePort is using Radio Frequency Identification Technology to ensure the quality, integrity, origin and safety of Manitoba and Canadian agricultural products exported to North American and Chinese markets. The new system was used this year to export Manitoba’s first-ever containerized shipment of homegrown soybeans to China for distribution.
Not everything about CentrePort is about manufacturing and transportation, as there is also a plan for residential development in the southwest corner.
“We’re not a real estate developer, so we’ll need private-sector partners” for this phase of the overall plan.
“This is a fantastic story for Manitoba,” commented Commercial Division chair Tom Derritt, following Gray’s presentation.
Indeed, Winnipeg has returned to its earlier life and is once again becoming an inland port connected to the world.