Abbotsford International Airport.

ANALYSIS: Massive aerospace plant far from certain, but would reshape Abbotsford

Land costs would rise & traffic would be worse, but job options would improve & city would get more fun

It’s hard to understate the sheer transformative effect that a manufacturing plant employing 7,000 – or much more! – would have on Abbotsford.

Earlier this week, a small item in a city committee agenda revealed a U.S. company had spoken about potentially setting up such a plant at Abbotsford International Airport. It’s clear that things are still in the preliminary stages. The company suggested two potential plant types: the smaller would employ a still-staggering 7,000 workers; the larger could result in the need for “10,000+” workers.

RELATED: U.S. firm eyes Abbotsford for potential aerospace plant that could employ 10,000 workers

We know little else, but it seems likely any such plant would be tied to the Canadian government’s procurement of new fighter jets. Two U.S. companies – Lockheed Martin and Boeing – are among three that may bid on the $19 billion project. And promising to set up a plant in Canada to build at least part of the jets has traditionally been seen as a way to land such valuable contracts.

That all means the company exploring the possibility of building a plant in Abbotsford might not get the actual contract. And even if they do, they may decide to not build a plant here.

But even the potential impact of such a plant is so transformative that it’s worth thinking about even at this early stage.

Obviously such a plant would be good for the local economy. But it’s not the economy here that is most interesting.

Instead, just consider everything those workers – and the workers that would be needed in support industries – will need.

Those people would need to live somewhere, and many would likely prefer to live near where they work. The central Fraser Valley does not have a surplus of housing, and is unlikely to have one whenever such a plant comes online. Abbotsford’s housing costs have always been significantly cheaper than cities to the west. A large plant would likely shrink that gap. Anybody owning property near the airport would see their neighbourhoods changed, but also their bank accounts grow significantly if they choose to sell.

Higher land prices would also incentivize the building of highrise towers in the city’s core and denser developments elsewhere. More people also provide more customers for restaurants and fun attractions. But they also put a larger strain on everything from the city’s parks and sportsfields to its hospitals and schools. And unlike the steady growth regions usually see, a single plant contributing to this growth would shorten the timeframes slow-moving government bodies usually have to respond to population growth.

Some workers would live outside of Abbotsford or Langley. They would need to get to and from work. Extending SkyTrain to Abbotsford sooner rather than later would suddenly be immensely practical. The city’s long-term transportation plans and infrastructure budget would need to be revisited. Traffic everywhere would increase, but especially in areas closest to the airport.

Abbotsford’s politics would also be re-made. A city’s representatives reflect its people and demographics. As more people move here for work, they will bring their values and ideologies. This is not a bad thing, a good thing, or a new thing. It is something that is always happening and will always happen. But a massive plant in a mid-size city would significantly speed up that ongoing process – and possibly change its direction.

Then there’s the Official Community Plan the city adopted three years ago to guide it through the next two decades. It was based on the necessary assumption that growth would be steady and gradual and the city’s economy would remain based around an assortment of businesses spread around Abbotsford. A massive new manufacturing plant would not only speed up the timelines envisioned, but the concentration of so many workers in one place, and the spillover effects from that, would mean require going back to the drawing board, at least in part.

Some of these outcomes are good. Others less so. And there’s a good chance they may never come to pass. But the true scale of the possible impact of such a huge plant on Abbotsford and its people can’t be overlooked.

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email:
tolsen@abbynews.com


@ty_olsen
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