Companies & Industries

How Cornwall, Ontario became Quebec retail’s shipping hub

Serving Quebec markets, sans red tape

Postcard from Cornwall, Ontario

(Leonora Enking)

Cornwall, Ontario is a riverside town of some 59,000 inhabitants, wreathed in forest and, as the postcard above suggests, picture-perfect. But to truly represent its modern reality, a postcard would have to include a rather incongruous feature: an eighteen-wheeler truck. Cornwall’s 1,600 acre business park in the town’s north-east corner is home to one of the country’s biggest logistics clusters.

Cornwall sits just over 100 kilometres from Montreal, and many of Canada’s biggest retailers choose to stock their Quebec stores from distribution centres on the Ontario side of the provincial border. As the map below shows, Cornwall’s logistics cluster plays host to businesses like Target, Walmart and Shoppers Drug Mart. Most of the retailers represented outsource their distribution handling to third-party logistics operations, or operate via subsidiaries.

Click or tap on the map for more details on each site:

Reliable labour and cheap rents have driven more and more businesses to move their logistics operations to Cornwall. Fully-serviced land in the town comes in at $30,000 per acre and the town has no development costs, a significant saving according to Cornwall’s economic development manager Mark Boileau.

The presence of Highway 401 and the St. Lawrence River on either side also provides easy transport access. A traffic study completed prior to the opening of the Target site estimated that 400–1,000 trucks are in the area during the morning peak hour, with 500–800 in the evening peak hour, numbers that have likely risen up to 25% since.

Ontario is considered significantly more business-friendly than Quebec, with lower corporate taxes, less unionization and lower wages. Locating in Cornwall also allows companies to bypass Quebec’s strict language laws and protectionist attitude to local businesses.

“We tend to have a pretty loyal workforce; we have a history of manufacturing that dates back over a hundred years now,” noted Boileau. “Working shift work, which is very important at these locations, is not a challenge or difficulty with the people who live in Cornwall and the area [around], which can sometimes be the case.”

Target opened a 1.4 million sq. ft. facility in 2012 via Eleven Point Logistics. “What happens with these distribution centres is they end up serving not just eastern Ontario or even Quebec, they’re often the eastern Canadian location,” explained Boileau, citing the construction of the eastbound Highway 30 bypassing Montreal as a recent change that has boosted interest. Target’s Cornwall centre also services the Martitimes, and the expansion was accompanied by the closing of a Zellers site in Point Claire, Montreal.

Canada’s biggest grocery chain is the latest arrival to the town: Loblaws, under the guise of Boundary Properties Ltd., acquired a 121 acre site in 2012 and has until December 2015 to finish building its distribution centre. It’s a convenient location — new subsidiary Shoppers Drug Mart has a site right across the road. But the new development has aroused protest from union officials at Loblaw Quebec subsidiary Provigo, who believe Cornwall is taking away some 600 positions from the company’s Montreal operations. Boileau says the logistics business accounts for something like 2,000 jobs for the town.

Cornwall’s municipal council has aggressively pursued the logistics industry; Industrial Park Drive, a new road in the Business Park, was built to service the Target and Loblaws locations at a cost of $7.5 million, with $1.1 million from the province.

With hundreds of acres of the Business Park still unoccupied, don’t be surprised if even more of Canada’s retail giants decide that scenic Cornwall is the right waypoint for their wares.