Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Newcomers swell Neepawa's ranks

Question is, where to house them?

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NEEPAWA -- People talk about all the "brown faces" on a Sunday afternoon in Neepawa's downtown these days.

The people are immigrants, particularly from the Philippines, lured by jobs at the HyLife Foods hog plant on the eastern edge of town. HyLife purchased the former Springhill plant in 2008, owned by 16 Hutterite colonies, and expanded production and created hundreds of new jobs.

"From what I see, I would say in three years Neepawa will be 30 per cent Filipino," said Marion Hijkoop, settlement services co-ordinator for the Neepawa area.

That's when Neepawa's population will have shot up to about 5,000 from 3,200 in 2008.

The question is, where will all the new immigrants live? There's no housing. People are living in hotels. People are living in rented basements. People are living in little "nanny suites" local residents have built into their homes.

It's not unusual for 10 workers to be living in a three-bedroom bungalow in town. One duplex has 20 people living in it, single workers from the Philippines who hope to eventually obtain permanent status and bring their families over. Newcomers are also taking up residence in Minnedosa, 40 kilometres to the west of Neepawa, and Gladstone, 26 kilometres to the east.

"It's scary. We've adapted as well as we can so far," said Hijkoop.

Booms are good. Booms are wonderful. Booms are manna from heaven for those communities lucky enough to have one.

But they can also be an immense challenge, especially in a small town with an aging infrastructure and an aging population with many people who may have thought their booming days were behind them.

More than two-thirds of Neepawa's population was over 50 years of age before the recent wave of immigration. The people of Neepawa thought they were headed for a long snooze as a retirement centre.

Not only is there a housing shortage, but a shortage of a certain type of housing.

How do you have housing for meat cutters making in the $12-$14-an-hour range? It has to be affordable housing.

 

About 75 per cent of immigrants have come from the Philippines, but also from Korea and Ukraine.

The first wave were Koreans, but the majority were only using the hog-plant jobs as a stepping stone to gain entry to Canada. Many were highly educated. The group also included accountants, an MRI technician and two with engineering degrees, including one man who had worked as an aeronautical engineer before working as a meat cutter in the hog plant.

Many of the Koreans have since moved, some to Brandon and others to major centres like Vancouver and Toronto.

The Ukrainians have also moved on to some extent, mostly to Brandon. One Ukrainian working in the meat plant had a master's degree in international business from England.

Now, HyLife is bringing in workers mainly from the Philippines who have experience in meat processing. They have enough English to get by and they stay once they arrive.

The workers arrive on visas, can apply for their immigration nominee status with the province after six months and after a year can apply for permanent immigration status. If all goes well, the process can take two years. Typically, people bring their families over once they obtain landed status.

It's the new model for the hog-processing industry, after company-union battles in the 1990s slashed the wage scale. There was a time when working in meat-packing plants was regarded as a hard job, but at least it paid well. The jobs don't pay like they once did. Now, especially in rural centres, hog plants are largely engines for immigration, as evidenced here and the Maple Leaf Foods plant in Brandon.

People from the Philippines are glad to have the jobs. Efren Macatangay is 49. He was let go from the meat-packing company he worked for in the Philippines. "In the Philippines, there's no future if you're looking for work and your age is over 31. There's no job waiting for you," he said.

"You have no idea how thankful and how appreciative they are to be here," said Hijkoop.

Olivan Afuang, who arrived in this community in 2002 as a male nurse, and volunteers to help his fellow countrymen when they arrive, said 80 per cent of the Filipinos who arrive in Neepawa are staying.

But where? There almost seems to be a standoff with developers right now.

"We have developers coming out of our ears," said Rick Donaldson, economic development officer for the area. The problem is, he said, "we don't have serviceable land and we don't have land we can service at a reasonable cost."

The town hasn't even begun rezoning agricultural land for residential use. With another 300 hog-plant employees scheduled to arrive in spring of 2012, it had better hurry.

Most developers want incentives before they start building, but the town says it can't provide them. While immigration has increased property values and raised property tax revenue for the town, the increased revenue is not nearly what the town needs, said Neepawa Mayor Ron Forsman.

And the town is loath to raise taxes. Neepawa just built a new water-treatment plant that's added from $300 to $500 a year to realty taxes for the next 20 years, Forsman said.

Compounding problems is that infrastructure like water and sewer pipes is disintegrating. The water pipes already lose up to 20 per cent of water due to leaks. It's unlike the situation in Morden, where a forward-thinking council has for several years been funding water/sewer pipe renewal so the town isn't hit with a huge bill all at once.

A comment you hear in Neepawa is that the town council simply has no experience in dealing with growth and doesn't know how to respond.

One possible solution that was debated by council was to float a bond. Say it floated a bond for $1 million, paid five per cent interest (above the two per cent or so return from banks), and used returns from developed land to pay that interest. Money raised would be pumped into developing a new subdivision. Town council rejected the idea.

Some people believe the provincial government should help out. It's promoting immigration, but doesn't do enough to help with settlement, they say.

However, they said the same thing in Winkler when it lobbied for financial help to build affordable housing for its immigrants. The province turned down Winkler.

There is some housing in the works.

HyLife has looked at building a work camp for new arrivals and had land rezoned for that purpose. However, it has held off so far.

James Janzen, brother of HyLife president Don Janzen, has teamed with local contractor John Lavich to build a 10-unit condominium, in a kind of row house, priced at $110,000 each. The units sold almost instantly. A similar 16-unit condo is in the works.

A deal is expected to be completed between the town and the FWS Group of Companies, whose chairman is former premier Gary Filmon. FWS is interested in taking over the abandoned personal care home, East View Lodge, and converting it into 52 apartments. They many not serve as permanent homes for many newcomers, but long-time area residents may give up their houses to live there, and newcomers could fill those houses.

Another 24-unit apartment complex, called AspenLea, is expected to open this summer. The apartments are again for the older crowd (children are forbidden). The thinking is that people who move into the apartments would sell their homes, opening up housing, too.

But much more is needed. Donaldson said he thinks the town may need to swallow an additional property-tax hike specifically to fund development.

Donaldson has an interesting background. He took early retirement from Frank Stronach's Magna Corp., where he was director of government relations. Donaldson returned to Winnipeg, got bored in retirement, then became intrigued by the challenge of steering Neepawa through its growth phase.

"I lived in Eastern Canada, where people are used to paying high property taxes. We have to raise our property taxes here. There's got to be a fundamental change in attitude," he said, stressing he is speaking as an economic development officer.

Or the town might start an "infrastructure deficit fund" and get people to invest from their savings, he said. It might work like a bond, with some sort of return built in.

With the money, Neepawa would rezone agricultural land and put in infrastructure, he said.

As unprepared as Neepawa is for all this, Hijkoop wonders whether any community can be ever ready for a population increase of 25 per cent in three years, and increasing rapidly.

"I would use the analogy of family planning. Are you ever really ready to start a family? I don't see ever being able to prepare for something like this."

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Living the HyLife

April 23: Boom times

Today: A sea of new faces

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2011 B6

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