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Beach town crusaders.

With tourism firmly in hand, Gimli has its sights set on wider economic diversification

Gimli, Manitoba - Fast on the heels of establishing itself as one of Manitoba's premier tourist destinations, the town of Gimli, 60 minutes northwest of Winnipeg, is looking to broaden its economy by attracting industry.

This growing community of 4,300 on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg has been undergoing a major transformation, which began in 1991 with the re-landscaping of Gimli's main street and the opening of the 77-room Country Resort luxury hotel right beside the harbor. Both the streetscaping, which introduced a jaunty marine-blue theme, and the hotel were part of a waterfront redevelopment project spearheaded by town officials and NEICOM Developments, the federally funded regional development agency for the Northeast Interlake.

The downtown facelift has been an unqualified success, attracting new restaurants and stores to the community as well as an estimated 100,000 visitors a year. The western Canadian premiers came to Gimli for their annual conference in 1994 and the World Boardsailing Championships were held there that same year.

Despite its successes, Gimli still faces significant economic challenges, including an insufficient number of permanent jobs to sustain local residents and all the new-comers who want to live in Gimli. Many people are retiring to Gimli, lured by its location and quality of life, but there are also younger residents who continue to make the 90-kilometre commute to Winnipeg each day - people who would prefer to work locally if jobs were available.

The problem lies with the seasonal nature of the local economy. Most visitors come to Gimli in the summer for boating, windsurfing, swimming and lying on the beaches. Although there is lots of snowmobiling and excellent cross-country skiing at nearby Camp Morton Provincial Park in winter, Gimli lacks the ski hills to draw larger numbers of winter tourists. As a result, community leaders from the town and adjacent rural municipality of Gimli are planning a drive to attract more industry to eliminate the seasonal slump and create a year-round economy.

"I think it can be done," says NEICOM's Bill Budd, who works on community development with a dozen Eastern Interlake communities, including Gimli. "The confidence level is way up in Gimli and people are not afraid to try things. It has been like a roller coaster in recent years, with new businesses and developments coming one after another."

Budd is currently working with a Rural Municipality of Gimli committee that is drafting a plan to reinvigorate the 24-year-old Gimli Industrial Park. Gimli already has a Seagram distillery and an award-winning Duha plastics plant, but neither are located at the industrial park, which has had only moderate success since it was opened by the Manitoba Government in 1972.

This lack of success, plus pressure from the community for jobs, recently prompted the R.M. of Gimli Council to form the industrial park development committee, composed of business owners at the park and citizens at large. Although the committee is still completing its deliberations, it will probably recommend the establishment of a community development corporation that will seek business, industry and tourism for Gimli.

"One of our council's priorities is to get things moving at the industrial park," says R.M. of Gimli Reeve Kevin Chudd, a 32-year-old businessman who won the municipality's top elected job last fall. "We are taking this very seriously because the community needs jobs, investment and a year-round economy."

Chudd believes that the qualify of life beside the world's 11th-largest freshwater lake will draw more companies and permanent residents to Gimli. "We have an opportunity to be more than a tourist destination," says Chudd, whose family is currently expanding its Chrysler car dealership into a new $1-million-plus building on the outskirts of Gimli. "Because we are only 45 minutes from Winnipeg's perimeter, we are a convenient location for many business. We also have momentum and our challenge is to seize the moment and take steps to capitalize on it."

The reeve believes that Gimli has a bright future, but it will also take hard work to revitalize the industrial park, which covers 1,396 acres in the rural municipality, three kilometres west of town. Originally, the park was a Canadian Forces air base, which opened in 1943 and trained several thousand wartime and peacetime pilots before it closed in 1971. The Manitoba Government subsequently turned the base into an industrial park and established a program of grants and incentives to lure major industrial tenants. But that strategy failed as the tenants tended to vanish as soon as their grants and inducements ran out.

The most famous or infamous of them all was Saunders Aircraft, which gobbled up $60 million of public money before it sputtered out of business. Other park tenants of the early 1970s included Misawa Homes, Allwest Marine, Triple E recreational vehicles, and Ontario Central Airlines. All have since ceased operations except for Triple E, which is still going strong at its home base of Winkler.

Provincial officials tired of the park by 1989, possibly because of its poor track record. They began to withdraw from the property, selling individual lots to industrial tenants and transferring ownership of the roads and other infrastructure to the R.M. of Gimli. Five years later, in late 1994, they pulled out completely, leaving the municipality with all the unsold lots and a $2.3-million grant that was allocated in 1989 for park improvements.

The park is currently home to 16 companies and government departments such as the regional office of Manitoba Natural Resources, representing some 250 jobs for the local community. The CNR has had an engineer training centre at the park since 1978, but most successors to the early national tenants are small- to medium-sized enterprises that have been started and nourished by local entrepreneurs. They occupy 39 lots - 43 are still to be sold. No prices have been set, but a recommendation will be made soon to the R.M. council by the park development committee. There may be bargains on some lots and a few other inducements, as Gimli wants to be competitive with nearby industrial parks at Selkirk and St. Andrews.

"I think businesses will be drawn to Gimli by affordable land and lower taxes and operating costs," says NEICOM's Budd. "The region also offers a labor force with a good work ethic because people have been brought up in the farm and fishing lifestyle. Many of them have had experience elsewhere and are now coming home."

The development officer says Gimli's trump card may be the industrial park's airport. It features a 6,800-square-foot concrete runway and taxiways that are lit and open 24 hours a day. Although there is no scheduled air service, the airport was the landing site of the famous "Gimli Glider" - an Air Canada Boeing 767 passenger jet which successfully glided to Gimli after running out of fuel over Red Lake in northwestern Ontario.

"Gimli can be a home for aircraft-related companies," says Budd. "Its airport is an important asset that could be even more valuable in the future if large airports are privatized and introduce higher fees. This could force small companies that use airports to look at Gimli."

According to the development officer, the Gimli industrial park would also be suitable for printing and publishing companies, the film industry and more entrepreneurs who are outgrowing their homes and backyards. He says an incubator mall could be established for fledgling manufacturing enterprises.

All of these ideas appeal to Dean Thorkelsson, chairman of the industrial park development committee. Thorkelsson is president of Lake Agassiz Marine Inc., one of the more successful businesses at the park. His growing company sells, repairs and stores pleasure boats in several of the airport hangars.

"I feel that if the park is a success, my business will be a success," says Thorkelsson. "If more companies were here, there would be more traffic through the park and more people knocking on my front door. That is important to me because I have a considerable investment in park properties. It has prompted me to work on the development committee. Even if my schedule was almost full, I would make time for this committee."

The park airport has drawn such businesses as the Winnipeg Skydive centre and two pilot training schools - The Interlake International Pilot Training Centre and Interlake Aviation (1994) Ltd. Another is Skyline Maintenance and Avionics Ltd., which repairs and services private aircraft.

Other significant employers at the industrial park are Lake Winnipeg Boat Works, a manufacturer of fibreglass boats; Gimli Cement Works; and Cornerstone Enterprises, whose recycling workshop provides a livelihood for mentally challenged adults.

The newcomer in the park is Gimli Cement Works, which has been manufacturing concrete sewage holding tanks in its new plant for the past 18 months.

"The park is ideal for a company like ours, which sells to contractors who build cottages," says Chuck Amason, the company's president. "It has paved roads, water, sewer, natural gas and the proper zoning for industry. The costs of establishing were economical compared to the fortune we would have spent if we had built out in the country."

Recreation and entertainment are the other aspects of the park that may be further developed. It has a bowling alley and both par-three and regulation nine-hole golf layouts where executives can spend leisurely lunch hours. Also humming in summer is the 217-acre Gimli Motorsport Park, which is just west of the airport and the scene of the annual Sunfest music festival plus drag, motorcycle and sports car racing.

The R.M. of Gimli Council has already started to improve the park by re-building roads and tearing down some of the barracks and other crumbling buildings leftover from the old air base. The next step is to go after more industry.

The municipality's planned sales campaign is drawing words of support from elected officials and business people in the nearby Town of Gimli.

"Gimli needs industry to provide us with greater diversification," says Bill Barlow, the longtime mayor the of town. "Tourism has taken off in a big way at the waterfront. There is even talk that the Lord Selkirk passenger ship may be re-floated and based at Gimli this summer. But we also need other activities to support a year-round economy."

Barlow is hoping that the town and rural municipality will be able to form a joint development corporation. "Our economic affairs are intertwined," he says. "We have a 100-lot housing subdivision in our Vestureland district that is ready and waiting for industrial park workers."

Gil Strachan, owner of Gimli's Chicken Chef Restaurant, also supports the community's plan to attract more industry. "We need company payrolls to keep our retail sector going from November to March," says Strachan. "We would be in trouble if we didn't have the Seagram distillery and the boat and aviation companies at the industrial park."

Strachan is confident about Gimli's future prospects. "I think that we can probably look forward to more prosperity and expansion," he says. "Gimli offers a relaxed pace of life and yet we are within easy striking distance of the city."

Equally optimistic is Norman Smith, a co-owner of Gimli's Shoreliner Hotel. Smith and his partners - Neil Bradley and Donald Ciemmy - plan to demolish their present building and replace it with a $4-million-plus luxury resort that will offer condo suites to the public on a time-shared basis.

"I expect Gimli to outperform all towns in the Interlake," says Smith. "Besides being close to the city, it has history and quality of life."

Roger Newman is a journalist who lives in Gimli.
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Title Annotation:Gimli, Manitoba
Author:Newman, Roger
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:May 1, 1996
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