Construction boom helps keep Ottawa economy afloat

Ottawa has seen a significant increase in the number of construction projects across the city, and the shovels in the ground are helping create jobs and keep money flowing.

Projects underway worth more than $3.5 billion combined over next few years

Ottawa's construction sector is seeing more cold-weather work thanks to big projects. 3:04

The global financial crisis may have beaten down many sectors, but for Ottawa's construction industry it kicked off steady, plentiful work. And with several projects worth a total of more than $3 billion under way in the coming years, those employed in construction expect the good times to continue.

Their stability began when governments put billions of dollars into "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy after the market crash. As that injection of spending was ending, the City of Ottawa began its own, $340-million, three-year upgrade of area roads, sewers, bridges and cycling paths.

From left, CBC Ottawa reporters Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco, Susan Burgess and Kate Porter. (Kristy Nease/CBC)

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Now, even though the residential construction market is cooling, the Conference Board of Canada says non-residential construction is taking off.

The municipal government is behind the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park and a $2.1 billion first phase of light rail construction.

The private sector is also busy. Rideau Centre and Bayshore Shopping Centre are expanding, and Tanger outlets and a Bass Pro Shop will soon be erected in Kanata.

In total, 35,000 people were employed in construction in Ottawa-Gatineau in 2013, according to statistics provided by the Conference Board of Canada, making it the national capital region's third-largest sector.

Who's working?

Ottawa company R.W. Tomlinson has a contract worth nearly $150 million to widen the Queensway between the Nicholas exit and Highway 174 interchange, in preparation for the new light rail line. These days, steel workers are erecting girders to expand the bridge over the Rideau River.

Nick Gianetto is a field engineer for R.W. Tomlinson. (CBC)
"This project has definitely been good for us," says Ivan Levac, who is managing R.W. Tomlinson's light rail-related projects. The company is working year-round to keep on schedule. "We've continued working all winter long so we've been able to keep our guys going so it's been a steady stream of work for our employees."

That means a lot in an industry where tradespeople often have to deal with lulls, especially in the winter.

And while the non-residential construction taking place in Ottawa has mostly served to provide existing workers with regular work, Levac says there are also some opportunities for people entering the trades, especially as older workers retire.

The Rideau Transit Group, the consortium that won the light rail contract, also hired 200 new people in 2013, including many professionals.

Buying local

Ottawa's construction boom

1. Light Rail Transit: first phase, $2.1 billion.
2. Lansdowne Park redevelopment: $450 million.
3. Ottawa on the Move road projects: $340 million (now in third and final year).
4. Rideau Centre expansion: $360 million.
5. Bayshore Shopping Centre expansion: $200 million.
6. New retail in Kanata (Tanger Outlets, Bass Pro Shop): $120 million.

Source: Mayor’s State of the City address, Jan. 22, 2014

That big-ticket project — the construction of Ottawa's light rail Confederation line through to 2018 — has already seen people with highly specialized skills relocate to the capital. But Mayor Jim Watson says most of the work is being done by Ottawa companies.

"The stats I've seen are 80 per cent of the work is being done locally, which is very, very high," Watson says. "Quite frankly, it's cheaper for the Rideau Transit Group to hire locally and buy locally than bringing people offshore."

And as the light rail project progresses, the skills needed will change. Right now, for instance, labourers are digging the tunnel, but other skilled trades will eventually step up. Some people who work in railroads have contacted the Ottawa local branch of the Labourers' International Union of North America to ask when their skills might be needed, said Luigi Carrozzi, manager of LiUNA Local 527.

"It allows a lot of Ottawa residents who were maybe working in Toronto or Niagara Falls or elsewhere in the province, or even in the country on tunnels or mining projects, that they have the option to come back and work closer to home," Carrozzi says.