Canadian Site of the Gordie Howe International Bridge in August 2021. Full galleries and more information at the Gordie Howe International Bridge Website.

The Windsor/Essex Community Benefits Coalition recently held a Q & A on community benefits with WDBA’s Vice President of Corporate Affairs and External Relations Heather Grondin. Find out how the Gordie Howe International Bridge Community Benefits Plan came to be, what parts of the plan have been delivered or are in progress, and the future of community benefits for the project.

Can you explain what community benefits mean for the Gordie Howe International Bridge?

Early in the planning process for this project, it was understood that the delivery of the Gordie Howe International Bridge project should provide the local communities with an opportunity to leverage the significant infrastructure investment for positive social and economic outcomes. This idea was formalized in the Crossing Agreement signed in 2012 by the Government of Canada and the State of Michigan, which required the incorporation of a Community Benefits Plan.

WDBA worked with its Michigan partners to develop a common definition of “community benefits.” On the Gordie Howe International Bridge project, community benefits are identified opportunities that can advance economic, social or environmental conditions for the local communities. It was important to the project team to ensure that the community benefits to be delivered reflected community priorities, which led to a multi-year consultation on the subject.

How was the Community Benefits Plan created?

Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority (WDBA) and its Michigan partners meaningfully engaged and empowered the Windsor and Detroit communities in all stages of development of the Community Benefits Plan. Bridging North America (BNA) joined this consultation process after Financial Close in September 2018.

Between 2015 and 2019, WDBA and its Michigan partners undertook a two-phase consultation approach with Ontario and Michigan residents, Indigenous Peoples in Canada, business owners and community and municipal leaders. With Bridging North America joining the second phase that occurred between September 2018 and March 2019, more than 230 unique suggestions for community benefits were received for consideration. During the two phases, the project team held public meetings, one-on-one meetings, focus groups, a public survey, a social media campaign and received ideas through direct correspondence.

Most submissions fell within five priority areas: local workforce and training strategies; limiting construction and operations effects on the community; community safety and connections; aesthetics and landscaping; and regional economic and community development opportunities.

The Community Benefits Plan includes numerous initiatives that reflect these priority areas. The plan consists of two components: the Workforce Development and Participation Strategy supports the expectation that residents and businesses within the region will participate in the economic opportunities made possible because of the Project. The Neighbourhood Infrastructure Strategy is a $20 million community infrastructure investment focused on priorities identified through public consultation.

How has the Gordie Howe International Bridge engaged with, and provided opportunities for, BIPOC groups and local workers?

The project team has placed importance of involving many voices in the creation and delivery of the Community Benefits Plan. Recognizing the large Hispanic population in southwest Detroit, the project has offered interpretive services at public meetings and provided print materials in English and Spanish. WDBA also meets regularly with Walpole Island First Nation and Caldwell First Nation to review current activities and opportunities. 

During the two-phase consultation process, the project team met with thousands of people in Windsor and Detroit, including African Americans and African Canadians, local Muslim representatives, and newcomers. WDBA worked with the Windsor-Essex Community Benefits Coalition and the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition to extend its outreach. Thanks to the United Way of Windsor-Essex, the prioritization survey was translated into several languages.

The project team continues to work with numerous community agencies and organizations, including the two Community Benefit Coalitions to raise awareness of opportunities on the project. To date, the project has exceeded its goal of having 20 per cent of the workforce draw locally, which the project defines as being from the City of Detroit and the City of Windsor plus 100 kilometres. As of June 2021, more than 4900 workers have been oriented to the project, and 45 per cent have been considered local.

What elements of the Community Benefits Plan have already occurred?

Since its launch in June 2019, the Community Benefits Plan has delivered many positive outcomes in the host communities. A Community Benefits Year-in-Review Report was published this summer that provides an excellent overview.   

As of June 2021, the Neighbourhood Infrastructure Strategy has invested more than $1.1 million through a wide variety of initiatives ranging from tree giveaways to investments in local parks and youth art projects. In its first two years, Community Organization Investment initiative has directly invested $200,000 to support non-profit/charitable organizations delivering youth programming, food pantries, neighbourhood beautification and events in Delray and Sandwich.

In addition to exceeding its local workforce goal, the Workforce Development and Participation Strategy has also engaged more than 152 pre-apprentices and apprentices on the project and184 local businesses have provided goods and services as of June 2021.

One exciting initiative to note is the inclusion of murals affixed to the tower crane climbing systems used to support construction of the bridge towers. The murals were created by local Indigenous artists in Canada and a local artist from southwest Detroit. These murals will climb with the construction of the bridge towers and will be highly visible from both land and river. The murals will remain on the climbing systems for approximately two years before being repurposed.

What upcoming community benefit projects are you excited about?

A key feature of the Gordie Howe International Bridge is the inclusion of a multi-use path for pedestrians and cyclists across the border. Users of the multi-use path will not have to pay tolls to cross the Gordie Howe international Bridge. While this path isn’t part of the Community Benefit Plan, the project team is working on trail connections in both Windsor and Detroit to allow for safe passage for cyclists and pedestrians into the communities.

We are also excited about the Windsor-Detroit Cross-River Tour which will create an international walking/cycling path that highlights the unique culture and history of Sandwich and Delray communities. Interpretive signage reflecting the area’s rich history will be installed at key locations along pedestrian and cyclist routes on Sandwich Street and adjacent to the two Ports of Entry. A community committee will be struck in the coming months to help inform this initiative.