WELLAND, Ont. -- Ed Kowalczyk stands at the edge of the old John Deere plant and looks wistfully across an empty parking lot.
It's been more than a year since he's been here and there is still bitterness in Kowalczyk's voice.
"Right over there, that's the door I used to go in every day," he said.
The last time he went in that door was Aug. 28, 2009. That's the day Kowalczyk, 31, was laid off from the forklift-operating job he'd held for seven years.
He's in good company. Thousands of manufacturing jobs have evaporated here in the last decade.
Most polls suggest that nationally, health care is top of mind in this election but in Welland, it's all about jobs.
"Absolutely the economy is the first thing on (voters') minds," said Kowalczyk. "I can't see what else would be on their minds."
Welland is one of the seats to watch in this campaign and one of the few three-way contests. The riding includes all of the city of Welland and surrounding towns such as Port Colborne and Wainfleet, as well as parts of both St. Catharines and Niagara Falls.
While Welland was a long-held Liberal seat, the NDP's Malcolm Allen wrested Welland away in one of the closest races of the 2008 election. He defeated the Conservative candidate by just 300 votes. Fifteen-year incumbent Liberal John Maloney was more than 2,000 votes back in third place.
Allen is running again. So is Maloney. This time the Tories have put up Leanna Villella, a small business owner.
Welland is a city of 51,000 people, located on a canal linking Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. It is surrounded by some of Canada's most popular tourism destinations -- just 25 kilometres from Niagara Falls, less than a two-hour drive from Toronto and surrounded by some of the country's best-known wineries.
But Welland is, or was, a manufacturing mecca. At one point, mighty steel plants employed workers in the tens of thousands. Now, most of the plants are vacant, run-down reminders of what used to be. Just on the outskirts of downtown is the 80-plus-hectare site that used to be home to Atlas Steel. At its peak it employed more than 3,000 people. When it closed in 2003, the final 800 employees were put out on the street. Atlas Steel is now a mix of overgrown weeds, dilapidated buildings with broken windows and rust.
Union Carbide, a cotton plant, a pickle plant, John Deere, all add their names to the list of companies that are no more in Welland. The reasons for the closings are numerous: the floundering auto industry, the high Canadian dollar cutting down on orders from the United States, old plants without money to upgrade and modernize, sending jobs to Mexico where they can pay less. There are even suspicions the U.S.'s protectionist Buy America policies forced companies such as John Deere to relocate stateside. Some of the John Deere jobs went to Mexico while others went to Wisconsin.
City economic development officer Dan Degazio drives around town doing his best to put a positive spin on things. Older Canadians from Toronto are retiring here, selling expensive homes in the big city to buy cheaper properties in the Niagara region, helping to drive housing starts and retail growth.
The city divided up the Atlas site and a few new companies have opened up on a couple of corners of it. The economy is diversifying so it isn't as reliant on supplying the auto companies. An LED company is a shining star, bringing both high-tech research jobs and manufacturing for LED lightbulbs.
In March, a new solar panel plant opened. But two days later, Henniges Automotive announced it is closing for good.
For every step forward, there is a bigger step back. New firms that come here are smaller and pay far less than the old ones.
John Deere paid on average $24 an hour. The solar plant jobs pay $13.50 an hour. Henniges is laying off 300 people. The solar plant hired 50.
Degazio isn't convinced the governments at Queen's Park in Toronto or on Parliament Hill really get it. "You'd think when a municipality is losing employees 500, 900 at a time, governments would be coming to help," he said.
But most of the local companies applying for federal and provincial government grants and loans are still waiting.
Economic stimulus poured into Welland. Money for the college, money for roads and highways. More than 20 projects and more money than any other riding in the region.
Degazio says the stimulus helped temporarily but didn't provide long-term help for the economy.
Downtown, evidence of the city's struggles are seen in every boarded-up storefront and for-lease sign. In one block of East Main Street by the court house and the new city hall building, more than half of the dozen or so storefronts are vacant. Two others are rented by candidates in the election. Around the corner, another vacated office suite is dedicated to the John Deere Action Centre, a union-run office to help former John Deere employees find new work.
A recent RBC Economics research report on Canadian cities puts the unemployment rate in the St. Catharines/Niagara region at 9.5 per cent. Only Windsor, Ont., and Abbotsford, B.C., have higher rates. Winnipeg's jobless rate was 5.7 per cent, the second lowest of the country's major urban areas.
All the party leaders have been through here -- including Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in March just before the election call on his "working families tour" -- to pledge incentives for companies to hire young workers.
Jack Layton has had the NDP tour here twice already, pitching his plan for job growth, including tax credits and payroll tax rebates for companies that hire new employees.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper came the second week of the campaign, pushing his long-held pledge to eliminate the gun registry.
Malcolm Allen is one of the 14 NDP and Liberal MPs targeted by the Conservatives for first voting with Manitoba Conservative Candice Hoeppner's bill to scrap the registry, and then changing his vote last September. They're hoping lingering anger over the gun registry will help put Villella into Parliament on May 2.
But there's also a lingering anger at Harper for coming to Welland and not talking about jobs. He made the mistake in 2008, campaigning in the riding with a promise to bar the sale of candy-flavoured tobacco products. Just five days before Harper called the 2008 election, John Deere announced it would close, putting 700 people out of work within a year.
In mid-March, just days before Harper's government was defeated on an opposition-led confidence motion, local auto-parts maker Henniges announced it would leave Welland, eliminating another 300 jobs.
But Harper again came to Welland and didn't talk about jobs except when asked by a local reporter.
It's a curious move considering one of his main points is that the election is about the economy.
Kowalczyk said it makes him angry.
"I'm against the gun registry, too, but we've got bigger issues here," Kowalczyk said.
Harper did meet with local business owners in January to discuss the economy. And at one of the two debates, Villella has attended (out of the nine organized since the campaign began), she did not mention the gun registry once. Instead, she talked about the Conservatives' support for area farmers, low corporate taxes and investment in Welland via the economic stimulus program. More than 20 projects were funded in Welland alone, and the riding got more than any of the surrounding ones.
Maloney didn't hold back when he said there was only one reason Welland got showered in cash.
"The Conservatives have targeted this riding... and tried to buy your votes," Maloney said.
What they aren't targeting, Maloney argues, are the real needs of the people including help for seniors whose pensions were cut when Atlas and other firms went bankrupt, and plans to improve pensions in the future to prevent similar problems.
Allen said the Tories have done nothing to stop the loss of jobs or help small business.
Kowalczyk was unemployed for 10 months before finding work last June at U.S. Steel Canada, 80 kilometres away in Hamilton. That job lasted until November when the company locked out its employees. The dispute drags on and Kowalczyk is again surviving on EI benefits and strike pay while he handles a new house and raises his first child, a daughter, who is eight months old. "It's not easy," he said. "But it could be a lot worse."
Degazio's pessimism is more for voter turnout than for Welland's future. In 2008, turnout plunged more than seven percentage points to below 60 per cent. Allen won but almost 600 fewer people voted for him than had voted for the NDP in 2006, when the party finished second.
"This election is not top of mind," he said. "People are so apprehensive. They are fed up and they don't see any difference in voting. I don't know what can actually sway people."