Winkler: ballooning with community spirit

Manitoba town’s soaring population attributed to a skilled workforce, immigration and spirit of co-operation

WINKLER, Man. — If visitors to Winkler drive around the small city looking for the multinational-owned factories that one would assume have powered the tremendous growth in the local economy, they won’t find any.

However, they will see a lot of factories ringing the community of 12,000 people, almost all of them owned by local residents.

“There are no billion-dollar companies in Winkler,” said Mayor Martin Harder during a lunch interview at Ralph’s German Restaurant and Cafe.

“We don’t have a pharmaceutical industry, we don’t have a high-tech industry. We’ve got a nuts-and-bolts manufacturing industry that serves oil and agriculture.”

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Some of those local manufacturers are now major, multifaceted companies, such as Triple E, a major recreation vehicle manufacturer that declares itself on its website to be “a prominent corporate member of the vibrant, ethnically Mennonite community of Winkler, Man.”

The city is home to dozens of medium-sized factories, and it has just opened its fourth industrial park after running out of room in its first three.

The growth around Winkler (and its sister town Morden) has been stunning.

It is now Manitoba’s fourth largest urban economy, following behind fellow Mennonite city Steinbach and established urban centres Brandon and Winnipeg. Its population has grown by about 25 percent in the last decade.

The Mennonite element is one of the keys to Winkler’s meteoric rise, but not all Mennonite communities have shot ahead as aggressively.

Harder said he thinks a combination of talented people, support for heavy immigration, a city culture of public contribution and an openness to others’ success is what has allowed Winkler to rise.

“We have an appetite to attract new business,” said Harder.

“We are capable of supplying a good workforce.”

Keeping Winkler’s young people at home after they have grown up has long been a goal of city leaders. Offering modern services as good as those in the city isn’t seen as a luxury but a requirement to retain people who have the option of moving.

It means Winkler sometimes doesn’t wait for provincial or federal funding for a project, even if it means losing the money. If something is needed, Winkler believes in having it.

“We don’t operate that way. We get it done,” said Harder.

Attracting immigrants is another essential element, he said.

Thousands have flooded to the area because of city-provincial co-operation that has drawn skilled workers to the area from around the globe. Many are from the Mennonite diaspora, and most bring skills with them. After a few years working for Winkler manufacturers or service providers, many open their own businesses and add to the critical mass.

Combined with the innate Mennonite cultural traits of independence, entrepreneurialism and an interest in manufacturing is the Winkler feature of public contributions of leading local companies.

Business owners often ask Harder how they can help with local endeavours. Triple E recently gave $1 million to build a new dining hall for a housing complex, something it saw as a fitting way to celebrate the company’s anniversary.

“That’s how Winkler was built,” said Harder.

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