Not managing winter weather testing industry in Thompson has given competitors an edge

Establishing an independent winter weather testing agency and a dedicated testing track could help Thompson regain some of the business it has lost from winter weather testers and perhaps eventually become an electric vehicle cold weather test centre, Volker Beckmann told the Thompson Chamber of Commerce Nov. 27.

“As Thompson has declined … our competition is other cities that are bigger than us,” said Beckmann, who is currently serving as one of the chamber’s points of contact for companies interested in doing winter weather testing in Thompson and first gained experience in the field arranging for snowmobile manufacturers to do testing at Mystery Mountain. “We’d build a track in secret for them.”

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Among the cities Thompson is competing with to attract winter weather testers are Bemidji, Minnestoa, Timmins, Ontario, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories and Fairbanks, Alaska. Electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla has a dedicated testing centre about two hours away from Fairbanks, while the Yellowknife Airport, the City of Yellowknife and the NWT Department of Industry, Tourism and investment and NWT Tourism have created the Yellowknife Airport Cold Weather Testing Group.

Winter weather testers can include snowmobile and automobile manufacturers as well as bus and heavy equipment companies, along with aircraft and jet engine makers, two of whom – Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney – test their products at the MDS Aerotest GLACIER facility just south of Thompson.  Thompson has not had an organization dedicating to attracting them since Thompson Unlimited shut down about five years ago.

“We’ve lost a lot of Ford business. It’s gone elsewhere,” Beckmann said, though Ford and Honda do continue to do some testing in and around Thompson. “If you’re not managing it, you lose it.”

Winter weather testers spend a lot of money in the local economy, particularly on hotel rooms and restaurants, while they are in town. One year, Ford had more than 220 testers in Thompson at various times, spending an estimated $2 million. Jet engine testing personnel are among the biggest single clients of local hotels, accounting for a couple thousand room nights and hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue per year.

Part of the challenge in promoting Thompson as a winter weather testing centre is the secretiveness of carmakers and other manufacturers.

“They don’t want to tell everybody what they’re doing,” Beckmann said.

As a result, some companies within Manitoba, such as New Flyer Industries, one of North America’s biggest bus manufacturers, which is headquartered in Winnipeg, didn’t even realize winter weather testing was happening eight hours north

The chamber has made strides towards positioning Thompson to better take advantage of the winter weather testing market, establishing a new website – www.subzeronorth.ca – to replace the previous one that is no longer active since Thompson Unlimited’s demise. The website is designed to provide potential winter weather testers with all the information they need to know about the relevant facilities in Thompson. Without that, interested parties are reliant on Google’s search rankings, in which news articles about Thompson’s violent crime are among the top results.

“Why would they want to come work in Thompson if that’s what they Google?” said Beckmann. “He finds all the information that he needs without getting sidetracked.”

The chamber hopes to find $100,000 from local donors to establish an independent agency to manage winter weather testing and establish permanent facilities.

"The end goal is to have a dedicated track that becomes the test centre,” Beckmann says. “This is ideally what we want to have in Thompson.”

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