Carmakers warm to frigid Canadian city as test site

Wed Feb 10, 2010 5:41pm EST
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By Rod Nickel

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - In the small Canadian city of Thompson, residents boast that the temperature dips below freezing for an average of 240 days a year while the ground is covered by snow for up to six months.

It's not exactly tourism brochure material, but the more consistently cold the weather is in Manitoba's biggest northern outpost (population 13,446), the more its cash registers ring.

A who's who of automakers, including Ford Motor Co and Honda Motor Co, measure their engines in Thompson every year against nature's worst conditions. This winter, the city's cold-weather testing industry has defied the recession, attracting Mazda Motor Corp, Mitsubishi Motors Corp, a new heavy-duty equipment company and new diesel companies.

"We definitely have had more testers in this year than probably ever before," said Roxie Binns, development co-ordinator of Thompson Unlimited, the city's economic development arm.

Thompson, located 739 kilometers north of the provincial capital Winnipeg, gained its reputation as a premier cold-weather testing site in the 1980s when Ford arrived. The company now leases an airport hangar for annual testing.

This autumn, a jet-engine test facility will open, owned in part by aerospace engine makers Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney.

In a region of shrinking communities, the city otherwise dominated by nickel miner Vale Inco added 1.4 percent more people between 2001-06. Virtually every Thompson business benefits from the testing industry, Binns said, ranging from hotels and restaurants to retailers.

Some auto engineers arrive needing to buy winter coats, but at some point they buy "everything you can think of," Binns said, adding that concrete blocks and peat moss (used to soak up oil) have been among the unusual requests.   Continued...