By Ian Ross
Timmins intends to stake its claim as a "global destination" for cold-weather testing by becoming allies with a leading U.S. research firm. They will investigate whether to build a world-class facility and winter-proving ground to see how cars, heavy trucks, industrial equipment, tires and snowmobiles perform in sub-zero temperatures.
For years the city has had a foothold in this mostly secretive industry with automakers Toyota and Jaguar operating seasonal facilities and MTD, one of the world's largest manufacturers of snow blowers, also setting up temporary shop.
But rather than work from an empty toolbox on what is considered a top-priority project, the Timmins Economic Development Corp. (TEDC) is partnering with Smithers Scientific Inc., an Akron, Ohio-based private researcher, seeking to expand its global clientele by targeting select companies from European and Asian countries.
"They have a very established global client base at their U.S. winter facility," says Kathy Keast, a Timmins economic development officer. "But it's not enough to grow their business" and they are seeking more capacity in a cold climate region with a longer test season.
Keast suggests the establishment a full-service "anchor" development will encourage multinational and existing clients to seek out and expand their operations in Timmins.
"There are a lot of potential global clients that don't cold test, and they have to if they want to break into the North American market and sell to the northeastern U.S., Canada and even northern China."
Keast, as part of a Timmins delegation, met with Smithers representatives two years ago at a Michigan trade show of the Society for Automotive Engineers.
She visited their corporate headquarters in Akron, Ohio last summer and toured their winter test centre in Raco, Mich. on the site of an old airforce base southwest of Sault Ste. Marie.
The proposed facility for Timmins would be somewhat styled after that site.
The city has pre-selected a sandy piece of municipally owned property, some 900 to 1,000 acres, just off Highway 655 across from the Toyota test track.
What is planned is an estimated $10-million to $12-million complex with varying kinds of testing surfaces, including an asphalt track capable of supporting heavy trucks, a sandy-soil test area, a closed-loop handling course, along with heated and chilled asphalt strips.
At least three buildings would be built on site, including a cold-box chamber for vehicles.
Deep wells are a vital need since these types of facilities require copious amounts of water for ice floodings, Keast points out.
To answer these and other questions about the property's suitability as a test facility, the City of Timmins sent out a request for proposals (RFP) for interested engineering consultants to complete a detailed hydrogeological, geotechnical and environmental analysis.
With an RFP closing date of June 29, Keast was "very encouraged" in mid-June with the 16 proposals received to date.
Applications to FedNor and the heritage fund have been prepared in advance for funding to conduct the feasibility study once the consultant is chosen, likely by early July.
Keast says the competition to attract cold-weather clients remains fierce among northern communities across Canada and Minnesota.
Towns such as Thompson, Man. will bend over backwards, issuing road closures, allocating night-use time of airport runways and offering hotel discounts to accommodate clients like Ford Motor Co.
"But we're not looking to steal someone else's clients, we're looking to build our own (client base)," she says.
Other factors in Timmins' favour, besides the city's consistently frigid winter temperatures and large tracts of available land, are their extensive telecommunications network and abundance of manufacturing and accommodations and infrastructure not readily available in more remote communities, Keast says
Based on figures from the Raco operations, these kinds of facilities create 40 to 60 seasonal jobs, but further attract hundreds of client personnel during test periods, using up to 8,000 hotel nights each winter.
Though the cold-weather testing industry itself is usually cloaked in secrecy to maintain confidentially and privacy, it is known that Jaguar and Toyota each spend an estimated $1 million in Timmins each winter.
Keast says Kapuskasing has a sprawling cold-weather facility for General Motors, but the automaker prefers to maintain a low profile in testing its prototype vehicles, which are years away from production.
"The companies usually don't like to give out exactly where their locations are, but they do say the communities (they are in) they're happy with," says Keast.
Both Jaguar and Toyota have provided the TEDC with testimonials and letters of support in the city's applications for provincial funding to attend trade shows to promote and investigate cold weather testing opportunities.