A city given up for dead half a century ago has been named the second-best business performer in the country.
The City of Winkler ranked second best in a business index comprised of a dozen categories including business growth, businesses per capita, self-employment, business optimism, and municipal property and education taxes.
While Winkler came second, Brandon ranked 23rd and Winnipeg 57th in the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) survey of 125 communities. Whitehorse, Yukon, was the only urban centre to top Winkler.
Winkler Mayor Martin Harder recalled a provincial study of rural Manitoba in the late 1960s that declared Winkler a dying agrarian town that might someday disappear altogether.
That served as a wake-up call for the community and it transformed itself into a manufacturing hub.
Former mayor Henry F. Wiebe determined that Winklerites had to grow their own businesses and famously oversaw the sod-turning of 17 businesses in one day. Winkler’s population has since surged from 2,500 in the 1960s to nearly 13,000 in the 2016 Canada census, with an average age of just 34.
The CFIB survey results were very gratifying to Harder and members of the Winkler business community.
"It’s been a long time coming and it’s through a lot of effort," Harder said. "I look back on when doom and gloom were pronounced on Winkler. We took the attitude that this isn’t the way it will be."
Winkler has benefited from immigration. One of the categories that jumps off the page is the 25 per cent of Winkler residents ages 15 to 34 who are self-employed in trades like bricklaying, carpentry, plumbing and even cleaning businesses.
Harder said he’d bet up to half of that total are immigrants or the grown-up children of immigrants.
"What’s exciting to me is how many of those people are going to be employing 10, 20, 25, 50, 100 people five or 10 years from now. Our trajectory looks really good moving into the future," he said.
Winkler also scored very highly in new building permits. The city had a record $46 million in residential, industrial and commercial building permits in 2018. That’s not even including $40 million for the new K-8 Pine Ridge School and the Meridian Exhibition Centre, for a total of $86 million.
Winkler’s businesses per capita numbers were also solid, at 3.6 per 100 residents. As well, 22 per cent of businesses plan to hire more employees in the next three to four months. (In Brandon, 16.7 per cent of businesses expect to hire, and in Winnipeg, 14.8 per cent.)
"The optimism is very high," said Harder, a former Cargill grain executive and grain company owner who is in his 13th year as mayor.
However, the median earnings for Winkler business owners and the self-employed — $45,000 — were definitely on the low side. It’s often said anecdotally that many business owners in southern Manitoba take slimmer margins to stay in their home communities.
"It’s really an eye-opener," said Jonathan Alward, CFIB Manitoba branch director. "They take on huge risk and extra stress, yet most business owners don’t earn near as much as people expect them to."
By comparison, business owners in Brandon had median earnings of $54,000, and in Winnipeg the median was $59,000.
The survey also takes into consideration "property tax gaps" — what businesses pay on a piece of property versus a residence of the same property value. Winnipeg didn’t fare as well as Winkler and Brandon because of its business tax, Alward said.
Darren Heide, president of the Winkler District Chamber of Commerce, said people know business is strong in the community but outside affirmation is always nice. There’s still a small-town feel where businesses help each other out, he said.
Some of the major companies include Triple E Recreational Vehicles (leisure travel vans), Load King Industries (grain-hauling trailers and flatbeds), Icon Technologies (motorhome parts), Meridian Manufacturing (grain storage equipment), Elias Woodworking (kitchen cabinets) and newcomer Valley Fiber (fibre-optics communications).
The CFIB list is not perfect. Only three centres in Manitoba were rated among the 125 across Canada, including seven in Saskatchewan and 21 in British Columbia.
Some glaring omissions include Dauphin, Portage la Prairie and Steinbach. The reason: they didn’t make Statistics Canada’s definition for mid-sized cities and census metropolitan areas.
About half the data for CFIB’s list comes from Statistics Canada, plus CFIB member surveys and property tax data.
Bill Redekop has been covering rural issues since 2001.