The Orillia and District Construction Association

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Community service and participation create business opportunities for members as local economy evolves

GTA Construction Report staff writer

The story behind the story of the Orillia and District Construction Association (ODCA) is about the powerful impact of community service and contributions, though you need to look beyond the cliches to understand how these concepts help to fuel business growth and viability.

The 72-member association serving the community of approximately 40,000 between Lake Couchinching and Lake Simcoe, 135 km north of Toronto, provides its members with information about upcoming projects, but it is not primarily a place contractors and trades go to search for leads about specific projects.

Instead, say ODCA president Michele Weber and board member Peter Head, the focus is on building relationships and contributing to the overall community’s health. These contributions, ultimately, create substantial business opportunities.

Orillia’s overall building permit activity has held fairly steady through recent years, says Dan Landry, Orillia’s manager of economic development, but the nature of the work has changed from year to year, creating challenges for many local businesses.

Overall building permit volume in the first seven months of 2011 has been approximately $80 million, an increase from last year’s $67 million, but this volume is heavily concentrated in a few major institutional projects, including a new twin pad recreational complex and the development of Lakehead University’s Orillia campus.

Industrial projects have declined so significantly that the city risked losing little revenue by introducing an incentive two-year development charges moratorum.  The value of industrial building permit in Orillia in 2010 was $180,000.  The value in 2009 was $1.28 million.

Landry says the industrial development charges moratorium has already started to produce results.  One of the city’s manufacturers, CCI thermal, announced it would nearly double the size of its plant from 59,000 to 100,00 sq. ft., “paying dividends in the short term.”

Nevertheless, Orillia, like other North American cities, has evolved from its traditional industrial base in the face of international competition.  The city is now a thriving commercial and service centre and new knowledge-based industries and activities, reflected in part by the Lakehead University expansion, are fuelling the city’s growth.

Here, too, are ironies. The largest projects including a new Ontario Provincial Police facility, library, the Lakehead expansion and the municipal recreational facility generally have been built by large, out-of-region general contractors who, in many cases, are bringing their own trades into the community.

“We have only one architect in town,” says Peter Head of Headstart Construction Inc., which has a thriving marine construction and barge business.  This fact makes it difficult for local contractors to compete for many of the larger projects, especially when they are structured as design-build initiatives, often requiring union labour.

Head, who says his business doing well enough that he has a multi-month backlog in orders, acknowledges that many tradespeople and contractors in Orillia are grumbling that they cannot truly participate in the major projects under-way.  Many are struggling, he says.

However, ODCA’s membership is doing quite well, he indicated.  “Our membership is not doing bad for work,” he said.  “But in the lumber stores, I hear of guys who are suffering — we can’t get them as members, they want to do it on their own . . . .

“They are not the kind of individuals who can carry on a conversation and make new contacts – they may be very good at what they do, but have no social skills; this means they end up with a very small capability of work that they are able to do.”

Head says he originally believed that Orillia’s construction industry had been dominated by an “old boys club” about 12 years ago “but that barrier has slowly almost gone.”  Now the cornerstones of success are community contributions and relationships.

“We’ve switched things around,” he said.  “We’re trying to bring attention for our members to a local community.  We’re doing things like participating in the Dragon Boat Festival and we have a revamped website.”

Head has discovered the combined value of community involvement and specialized skills and knowledge.  With an understanding of the requirements for marine construction and barging, his company can win work that no one else can handle.  “We have half a million dollars in marine equipment, barges, excavators and the like,” and specialized knowledge.  “We are not working on Lake Ontario – this is a sharp, high wave lake . . . you need someone who really understands the local conditions.”

Meanwhile, association president Michelle Weber, general manager of the Comfort Inn Orillia, has no problem with the influx of out-of-town contractors and tradespeople.  Her hotel has become a preferred destination for construction crews.

“People need a place to stay, people need to eat, shop, put gas in their cars – they are spending money locally in the city, and that brings business and economic growth to the entire community,” Weber says.

 She appreciates the powerful impact of selfless community service and encourages other members to get involved.  The ODCA is preparing to introduce a new Business after Five initiative, where the association will host meetings at different members’ locations, “appreciating our members and appreciating each other locally.”

“This will give our members more bang for their buck and allow members to really learn more about their counterparts’ businesses,” she said.

The net result of the community service and initiatives is that ODCA members are doing relatively well despite the leakage of local bidding opportunities to out-of-town contractors.  The members who contribute the most, in the most selfless manner, to their association and community, are doing far better than struggling contractors who simply don’t want to get involved.

“If you are talking about the construction association trades, I would be reluctant to make a blanket statement,” says economic development manager Dan Landry. “The indication I get is they are staying pretty busy – they aren’t relying on the local market, they are working out and I haven’t heard of any one closing up shop or laying people off for the most part.”