Brandon: Right on track

Brandon was established as a railway town in 1882. It was designated as a city from the start but it never gained the same clout as the provincial capital, Winnipeg. But the past decade has seen significant growth in the city with the arrival of Maple

Leaf Foods and other companies. The new businesses have generated thousands of new employment opportunities, diversifying what is still a largely agricultural centre.

"We are still basically an agricultural community and we rise and fall year after year," said James McCrae, president of the Brandon Real Estate Board and an agent with Royal LePage Martin-Liberty Realty.

The opening of the Maple Leaf plant in 1999 represented an investment of more than $100 million in the community, and created 1,400 jobs - twice that number when indirect employment is factored in - and not just in manufacturing and processing, but service-sector jobs such as retailing.

"It has really generated an awful lot of activity in addition to what was already going on," McCrae said.

The consolidation of Maple Leaf 's pork processing operations in Brandon is good news because it will add a second shift to the plant, which is expected to bring an extra 4,000 people to the city.

"The people who are coming here need places to live. We have next to zero in the rental market, maybe 0.2 per cent but that puts pressure on the whole housing sector," McCrae said.

But it also creates opportunities. When the plant originally opened, the Brandon Real Estate Board reported that homes were selling as quickly as they come on the market. It's a similar situation today, as employment creates a demand for housing, and better-paying jobs allow people to move up.

"We seem to have real estate availability in pretty well every level," McCrae said.

But he pointed to a need for new affordable housing. With low vacancies - the most recent Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. stats suggest there were just five rental units available in Brandon - new homes are needed. This creates opportunities for investors to fill the need, either with new developments or purpose-built rental projects.

"There are small businesses popping up all over the place. We're building more hotels, new businesses we hope will continue to want to locate here," McCrae said. "All of those things contribute to a nice level of high-paying or well-paying jobs, and along with all that activity comes service activity. We need to keep finding ways to construct new affordable housing for people."

It's especially important for the long-term health of Brandon. McCrae expects the opportunities to continue for "15 or more years" - well within the investment horizon of most investors.

While recent years have seen steady appreciation in home prices, properties here are still a bargain compared to major centres. Older, single-family homes are available for $150,000, while building lots list for less than $40,000 an acre. Condos sell in the range of $120 per square foot, while a four-bedroom executive-style bungalow is available for more than twice the price per square foot - but less than $500,000 overall.

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