Chronicling the rise and fall of an industrial powerhouse | Ontario East

Chronicling the rise and fall of an industrial powerhouse

By Ronald Zajac, Feb 27, 2021, The Recorder & Times

The 20th century was Brockville’s industrial golden age, and The Recorder and Times was there to chronicle its rise – and fall.

One of the names appearing most often in our pages as Brockville reached its Fortune 500 zenith, then suffered its decline, was Dave Paul.

Brockville’s economic development director, who retired four years ago, started on the job at city hall in 1988.

When he retired in February of 2017, Paul recalled working with Doug Ellis, the top city hall administrator who hired him, on some major manufacturing successes as the region reached new heights as a manufacturing powerhouse.

“It was the heydays,” Paul recalled as he retired. “We had over 5,000 people employed in manufacturing.”

“That was the era of the Fortune 500 names.”

In the 1990s, Paul worked that into a catchphrase, marketing Brockville as a Fortune 500 community.

“We did have that kind of pound-your-chest motto to market,” he recalled in another interview last week.

The city’s location – between two international bridges, on the St. Lawrence Seaway, on Canada’s busiest highway and on a significant rail line – had a great deal to do with the success of those heady days, he believes.

Paul recalled the cloak-and-dagger-style industrial secrecy some newcomers to the city’s industrial parks required in those exciting times.

So competitive was the manufacturing sector that representatives of one incoming company insisted their employer not be known, even to the prospective host city. The representative even told Paul to back away from the trunk of his car because the promotional material would give away his company’s name.

The cat – or, more appropriately, the roll of tape – was let out of the bag when Garry Becker, who ran the Royal Brock Hotel at the time, called Paul to tell him the company was 3M. The man had used his company credit card to pay his hotel bill.

Similar secrecy was the order of the day when Brockville landed the Shell plant in 1991.

Paul recalled being told the company was listed under a different name, but its representatives may have skipped the company meeting on industrial secrets. On the drive into Brockville from the airport, one representative in the car pointed to “one of their stations,” said Paul, and on a river cruise the men all wore Shell jackets.

In the era of that high-octane economy, said Paul, Brockville had more Fortune 500 plants and offices, per capita, than any other city in Canada.

At one point, added Paul, Brockville was one of three sites in North America that contained the formula for one of the most successful consumer products in history: Coca Cola.

“It was the only plant that I couldn’t get in the front door,” he said.

While some companies lasted for many years, others would come and go.

“You did have a lot of turnover,” said Paul.

“There always was a resounding confirmation that our labour here was second to none,” he added.

“That’s pretty much an Eastern Ontario attribute.”

Sadly, the good fortune was not to last.

Phillips Cables, a west-end plant built in several sections starting in 1922, closed in 1996, throwing 335 people out of work. It’s a story we covered from that dark day to the symbolic moment, on Tuesday, June 24, 2008, when the Phillips smokestack was torn down.

In a moment symbolic of Brockville’s industrial decline, spectators watch as the former Phillips Cables smokestack is brought down in June of 2008. (FILE PHOTO)

Other bad news followed, including the closure of Black and Decker in 1998. In January of that year, the company cut its manufacturing line from the Brockville facility, leading to the loss of about 500 jobs.

The debacle accelerated in the bleakest year for Brockville’s manufacturing sector, 2002, when the tech sector meltdown and the continuing forces of globalization led to the closures of Sanmina-SCI, CompAS Electronics and Nestle.

“That’s one thousand employees in three months, which represented one-fifth of our labour force,” Paul recalled.

Losing Sanmina-SCI, the Strowger Boulevard facility once known as Automatic Electric and Brock Telecom, was a symbolic blow for Brockville. The plant had become a cornerstone of the local economy over the decades in the 20th century; it hitched its fortunes to the booming tech sector of that century’s end, and suffered the consequences of the tech bust.

With a significant section of the city’s industrial base collapsing, the local economy lost high-paying jobs.

The industrial collapse before and beyond the turn of the millennium extended beyond the city limits, with other manufacturers such as RCA Victor closing up shop in Prescott, and DuPont leaving the once-mighty, now-reduced Maitland chemical industrial site.

The troubles in the region’s industrial sector occurred as companies left for other places, such as China or Mexico, where labour costs were much lower, Paul noted.

In other cases, such as the more recent closures of Procter&Gamble and Abbott Laboratories, companies moved production to higher-volume plants.

“It happened in many places across Canada,” said Paul.

But as one millennium turned into another, we also covered examples of Brockville’s resiliency.