It likely won’t do much to make people forget recent layoffs, but news of 56 jobs coming to London left provincial and municipal officials optimistic about the local economy.
Although a corporate announcement was made last summer from their offices in Madrid, Spain, officials with Natra Chocolate America were in London on Monday (Feb. 3) to announce the company will be setting up its North American headquarters in the Forest City.
“This is our official coming to London,” said Francisco Mas, chief operating officer for Natra Chocolate America. “We are very pleased to be in a position to contribute to the economic development of the city.”
Natra has leased a 100,000-square-foot plant on Roxborough Road that will become part of the company’s consumer goods division. Currently, the company makes chocolate bars, spreads and other specialty products at factories in Spain, France and Belgium.
Natra’s new London plant — which is expected to begin operation in March — will make about 12,000 tonnes of chocolate per year when at full production capacity.
Dr. Eric Hoskins, minister of Economic Development, Trade and Employment, led off the announcement by praising Natra for its decision to come to London. With competition for jobs now taking place on a global scale, Hoskins said “well-targeted government support” is often helpful in helping tip potential deals towards southwestern Ontario.
To that end, Natra is being given a loan of over $2.8 million from the Southwestern Ontario Development Fund to support a total investment of more than $19 million in the Natra expansion. In just 15 months since the fund was launched, Hoskins said it has helped create and retain more than 9,000 jobs while government investment of $34 million has leverage more than $300 million in private sector investment.
Although he praised London’s geographic advantage and closeness to the U.S. border, Mas called the $2.8 million loan “a key” to the selection of London as Natra’s first factory outside of Europe.
Deputy Premier and London North Centre MPP Deb Matthews joined in praising the fund, saying the provincial government understands what is happening in the southwest and is helping “kick start” investment.
Mayor Joe Fontana said the Natra announcement indicates two things. One, that provincial government support is “absolutely critical” in the highly competitive environment of economic development. Second, Fontana said London’s own advantages go a long way to enticing companies looking for that certain something that will tip their decision towards the Forest City.
Fontana acknowledged some people may not see the 56 jobs Natra will be initially creating as groundbreaking news, but they will serve as a starting point. Those 56 jobs are “a heck of a lot better than none,” Fontana said, adding that they help create a momentum London can capitalize on.
“I have learned you have to start some place. I have found that most companies start — whether or not it is Natra or Dr. Oetker or anyone else — then will soon find out this North American market is huge, they will find out London is very competitive and a great place to work from,” Fontana said. “I could see them in the future doubling that production and hiring more people.”
Matthews said it is important to think not just of the jobs created at that plant, but to remember the company will be purchasing “a lot of their raw materials” from local and regional operations. Dairy farmers, as an example, is one group Matthews said will see tremendous benefit connected to Natra’s London operation
The deputy premier also echoed Fontana point that the Natra announcement was “really important” in helping to cement London’s place in the food processing industry.
Matthews listed Dr. Oetker, the Original Cakerie, Labatt, and McCormicks as examples of businesses that are helping London to establish that position. However, whether it is proximity to the U.S. market or the clustering of other food processing-related businesses, there was one “competitive advantage” she believes trumps all others.
“We have — and this is a competitive advantage that London has that no other place in the world has — access to unlimited fresh water. We get our water from both Lake Huron and Lake Erie. There is nobody else who has that,” Matthews said. “In the food processing industry, that access to unlimited and very high quality clean, fresh water is a huge competitive advantage.”