Is Amazon coming? St. Thomas, Ont. buzzing as work begins on former Ford site

St. Thomas is abuzz with speculation about the possible arrival of e-commerce giant Amazon, as work at the recently-sold former Ford plant ramps up.
Crews were busy Monday at the site of the former Ford plant in Talbotville, just outside of St. Thomas. The property was sold, and there is speculation the site is being developed for Amazon. (Andrew Lupton/CBC )

Gerald Vreman is a lifetime St. Thomas resident who would love to see the site of the former Ford plant in nearby Talbotville once again become a place where locals earn a paycheque. 

For more than 30 years Vreman's father, a Dutch immigrant to Canada, worked on the assembly line at the Ford plant in Southwold Township, which closed in 2011. Gerald worked three summers beside his father, earning money for university by attaching wheels to Crown Victorias. Those vehicles were used by police forces across North American and rolled off the assembly line at a rate of one every 55 seconds. 

"It gave us respect to learn what our parents did for a living and how dedicated they were to their jobs," said Vreman, whose father died in 2000. "My Dad worked 48 hours a week there for decades. He worked hard, but he got paid well." 

This week, the expansive site of the former Ford plant returned to life. 

On Monday crews where there setting up fencing around the perimeter days after it was confirmed the property had been sold. Speculation is rampant the site is being prepared for use by e-commerce behemoth Amazon, though the company hasn't confirmed that. The property's location close to two major highways and about halfway between the GTA and the U.S. border make it a plausible spot for the kinds of massive logistics centres and warehouses that Amazon uses to store and sort packages. In addition to this possible site, the company is opening two warehouses in London. 

No one would confirm on Monday who might be using the property. The mayor of Southwold township, the municipality where the plant is located, told CBC News he had to sign a piece of paper swearing secrecy.

Clearly though, the news didn't escape the notice of residents. 

"I personally would welcome a big company like Amazon back here providing an income for families again," said Vreman. 

Gerald Vreman's late father worked at the Ford plant in Talbotville for more than 30 years in a job that paid enough for him to support five children. Gerald himself worked there for three summers. 'My Dad worked 48 hours a week for decades. He worked hard, but he got paid well.'  (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Vreman recalls summer days when Ford would up set up tents outside the plant and serve steaks to employees after the company met a production target or won an award for one of the vehicles produced there. Vreman is grateful Ford was able to provide a job that paid well enough to allow his father to support five children and provide a pension that his mother continues to collect. 

Amazon has been criticized for its labour practices, and some who spoke to CBC News about the company's potential arrival wondered aloud what kind of jobs might be coming. 

"Ford was always noted for honest pay for an honest day's work," said Vreman. 

St. Thomas has seen its share of key employers leave in recent years. Last year, Marriott closed a call centre in St. Thomas, taking with it more than 200 jobs. 

In 2008, Daimler AG closed a truck-making factory in St. Thomas, a move that cost the town 1,400 jobs.

Many who spoke to CBC News said they're anxious to see some news about the possible arrival of a large employee on the site of a plant that employed 3,600 people at its height. 

Malichi Male owns three businesses on Talbot Street. 

"I heard the rumour for sure, I don't know how much merit it has but if they're bringing jobs it's beautiful," he said. "I've been saying from day one that St. Thomas is a first-class city and Amazon is a first-class company. Every single door that closes, another one opens. Once Amazon is here, I hope other businesses are going to come." 

After being idle for almost a decade, the site of the former Ford plant in Talbotville came back to life this week, amid rumours that e-commerce giant Amazon intends to use the property. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)