The centre of it all

All Manitoba’s ideal location

Manitoba is known for many things. Lakes and beaches. Polar bears and Winnie the Pooh. Honey dill dip and wedding socials and, of course, championship football teams. What it may not be known for—or perhaps it’s the thing most taken for granted—is its geography. While many jokes are made about the Prairies being flyover country (and yes, that includes you, too, Alberta), this hilarity just may be tinged with a little jealousy.

The province—all 650,000 square km of it—is the centre of Canada and close to being the centre of our continent. (Yes, technically the actual centre is at Center, North Dakota, six hours southwest of Winnipeg but really, it’s us). It’s also home to the sixth-largest freshwater lake in Canada, Lake Winnipeg, and has longer growing seasons than our Prairie neighbours. Our capital has more sunshine hours than Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Up north is the Port of Churchill—Canada’s only deep-water Arctic shipping port. All of this is to say Manitoba has some unique geographical advantages that are ready to help fuel growth for a 21st century world. 

“Winnipeg isn’t just having a moment; it’s poised for long-term growth. We have consistently tried to raise our profile on the global stage with our networks across business development, FDI and talent recruitment,” says Dayna Spiring, president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg. “I think when you look at the major investments being made in our city by Bell MTS, Amazon, Ubisoft and others, you see that more companies are realizing our economy and talent pools are diverse and deep. You can build and grow great companies here and there are untapped opportunities in Winnipeg.”

Let’s trade
It’s hard to decide where to begin with Manitoba’s geography and how it’s driving the economy. Our capital sits at the intersection of four major trade routes. The city is a staging point for goods heading in every direction—west to the Asia-Pacific Gateway and Ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert; east to the Ports of Thunder Bay, Montreal and Halifax and the Atlantic Gateway; south via the Mid-Continent Trade & Transportation Corridor to the United States, Mexico and the Ports of Houston, New Orleans, Manzanillo and Lazaro Cardenas, and to the Port of Churchill up north. 

The Mid-Continent Trade Corridor offers significant economic benefits with its rail and highway connectivity. It links major commercial centres in Canada, the U.S. Midwest and Mexico, including Winnipeg, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, Monterrey, Guadalajara and
Mexico City.

CentrePort Canada is taking advantage of this with its strategic location in Winnipeg and the R.M. of Rosser. Comprising 20,000 acres of industrial lands, CentrePort is North America’s largest tri-modal (truck, rail and air) inland port and Foreign Trade Zone. The development is capitalizing on Winnipeg’s status as the only city on the Prairies with access to three Class 1 railways—CP, CN and BNSF. And soon, it will be home to the CentrePort Canada Rail Park that will offer direct access to the CP line and, through federal interswitching rules, access to all three lines. CentrePort is also home to an international trucking hub with some of Canada’s largest trucking carriers reaching destinations throughout the continent and, ultimately, the world. 

“CentrePort is strategically situated at the hub of multiple transportation corridors, in the heart of the continent,” says Diane Gray, president and CEO, CentrePort Canada Inc. “Manitoba’s historical strengths in trade and transportation, along with the existing infrastructure and available industrial land at CentrePort, makes the inland port an attractive location for companies looking to expand their presence in North America.”

Ground Services Equipment Building at Richardson Airport. Photo by WAA.

Fly away
Within the confines of CentrePort also lies the Richardson International Airport, a major player in Canadian air cargo services. Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, goods departing YWG can reach destinations around the world in just 48 hours. Bumping up the air cargo capacity was the brainchild of Barry Rempel, the recently retired CEO of the Winnipeg Airports Authority. In 2018, ground was broken on the $27-million 96,000 square-foot Ground Services Equipment building, which now supports cargo companies at the airport. While construction was delayed due to pandemic-related material shortages, tenants started moving in by late 2020. The facility is the first of a series of planned expansions for air cargo at the airport. The next phase includes a new 140,000-square foot air cargo logistics facility, which is being funded in part by $30 million from the federal government’s National Trade Corridors Fund. This new building will place cargo companies closer to the appropriate aircraft to facilitate the rapid movement of goods. It will also include cold storage, livestock handling and more cargo capacity.

Scott MacKenzie is the general manager at Cosentino Winnipeg Centre, a family-owned Spanish architectural surfaces company that launched one of its new Canadian showroom and distribution centres at CentrePort in 2020. It’s a hub for customers throughout Manitoba, Saskatchewan and northwestern Ontario, who were previously served by the company’s Calgary location. “CentrePort and Winnipeg gave us the place we need to better support our customers and warehouse our products, which are shipped from Spain to Canada and then by rail to Winnipeg,” says MacKenzie. “It was the natural place for us to go, with its convenient location, access to rail and trucks, and our ability to create a space that works for our business and warehousing needs.”

Belugas at the Port of Churchill. Photo provided by Travel Manitoba.

Port of Churchill
The northern part of the province is also on the cusp of new market access at the Port of Churchill. Churchill is Manitoba’s access to the North Atlantic through Hudson Bay and the Hudson Strait. Originally built by the federal government, the Port saw private ownership before becoming community and Indigenous-owned by Arctic Gateway Group in 2021. “A tremendous amount of hard work has seen northern communities reach this critical milestone,” said Town of Churchill Mayor and OneNorth co-chair Mike Spence in March 2021. “Together with our partners, we are taking the next important steps to realize our vision for a national arctic trade corridor.”

It’s the only Arctic seaport serviced by rail via the Hudson Bay Railway which connects Churchill to The Pas and its CN Rail connection. The port has a cleaning facility for wheat, durum and canola and four deep-sea berths for loading and unloading goods including grain, general cargo and mining and forestry commodities. It’s geographically closer to 25 per cent of Canada’s western grain production than any other port and shipping times to Europe are significantly lower compared to “southern” ports, like Thunder Bay.

However, the port still faces a few hurdles before it can reach its full potential. In November 2021, Arctic Gateway Group announced that the port would not see grain shipping this year or in 2023 due to continued work on the rail line that connects to the port. Arctic Gateway Group is also exploring other cargo for the port when the railway work is completed.

Don’t sleep on Brandon. Manitoba’s second largest city sits at the crossroads of the Trans-Canada Highway (east to west) and Highway 10 (north to south) with two Class 1 railways (CP and CN) running through it. Brandon Municipal Airport has daily flights to Calgary and the city is just one hour from the Bakken Formation, one of the most important new oil production sources in North America.

Ready for the moment
As Manitoba emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, its geographic advantages and infrastructure are poised to spur economic growth. 

“Our strength comes from our geography paired with our stable and diverse economy,” says Martin McGarry, CEO at Cushman & Wakefield | Stevenson in Winnipeg. “Unlike other parts of the country, we’re not as susceptible to the booms and busts of more-resource-based economies.” Beyond mining and agriculture, Manitoba is also home to robust manufacturing, transportation, distribution and aerospace sectors. 

Manitoba’s real estate market is also booming. “Unlike other regions and cities, Winnipeg has not been overbuilt. We have seen new construction in recent years, but our vacancy rate has remained relatively stable and able to serve the market,” says McGarry. “Plus, we have access to skilled labour and less expensive utilities. The opportunities add up for many sectors to do business here.”

Pembina-Emerson Border Crossing
The Canada-United States port of entry at Emerson is the second-busiest border crossing west of the Great Lakes, behind only the Pacific Highway crossing in B.C. Sitting within the Mid-Continent Trade Corridor, Emerson has played an important role in Manitoba’s economy since it was founded in 1871. Last year, the crossing saw 240,426 trucks and 116,709 loaded rail containers cross the 49th parallel going south, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The market is also reasonably priced and there is plenty of land on which to build. However, there are some challenges when getting projects off the ground. According to McGarry, Winnipeg’s commercial and industrial space has passed its best-before date. 

A lot of it is obsolete when it comes to height, size and parking. “We’re seeing homegrown expansion and new companies arriving and both are building new,” he says, adding that work should help convince others to do the same. The region needs to be more proactive with shovel-ready sites. The regulatory process could be faster, along with having sites that are zoned, subdivided, serviced and ready for construction. “We have a lot of good land that can help us make strides out of the pandemic,” says McGarry. “What we need is everyone going in the same direction.”

Despite the challenges, Manitoba is poised to make the most of its location, location, location. “Over the last several years, we have seen substantial activity at CentrePort and have welcomed over 100 new companies to the footprint,” says Gray. “This is just the beginning—with the development of the 665-acre CentrePort Canada Rail Park, along with new industrial parks coming to market at the inland port, there is significant interest from external markets, and we are well-positioned for growth in the years to come.”

“Growth begets growth,” says McGarry. With the right mix of skilled labour—both homegrown and from outside Canada—and real estate offerings matching the needs of business at competitive prices, Manitoba’s geography and infrastructure will help drive significant growth today and in the future.


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