Monday’s (June 29) announcement may have caught some city officials off guard, however for the 230 employees at the Marriott International call centre in St. Thomas, they had an inkling something was up the week before.
They had been told a video conference call was scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday, leaving them to fret the weekend away as to what lay ahead.
In this COVID-19 world, where the travel and hospitality sectors have been particularly hard hit, an announcement the call centre here and another one in San Antonio, Texas were to be shuttered later this summer really should come as no surprise.
Between the travel restrictions still in place and, before that, the ease of booking trips and hotel rooms online, the warning signs were clearly present.
That’s little consolation to the approximately 480 employees at the two call centres.
Particularly in St. Thomas where the centre, previously flying the Starwood banner, has been ensconced at its Talbot Street location since 2003.
St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston admitted to myFM he was unaware of the turn of events until contacted shortly after the announcement.
He conceded, “I’m not certain very many people are booking hotel rooms right now whether it’s through Marriott or anyone.”
He added, “I’m certainly disappointed in Marriott making that decision in the middle of the worst business climate from a pandemic they’ve ever had.”
With a considerable workforce about to be cut loose by the hotel chain, Preston reminded, “We’ve got a fantastically trained online sales force that has been working for Marriott and, before them, Starwood for years.
“I would expect that’s a transferable workforce in this day and age.”
Sean Dyke, CEO of the St. Thomas Economic Development Corp., noted with publicly traded companies like Marriott, “we don’t get advance notice. Just because we can’t know before their shareholders find out. I don’t certainly blame them for not letting us know ahead of time.”
As he pointed out in the heyday of Starwood, they had over 800 employees, “And with a call centre with that number of employees, they have been here certainly longer than a lot of people might have expected.”
Dyke continued, “They have done a very good job training people and we’re pretty happy to have them in our community.”
When Marriott leaves in September, Dyke notes they potentially leave a plug-and-play type of opportunity.
“I’m not sure what they’ll take when they leave but, regardless of that, the space is gorgeous . . . If you walked in there you would be hard-pressed to know if you were in St. Thomas or downtown Toronto.”
“There are a lot of jobs available in the community right now. If you drive through our industrial area there are hiring signs out everywhere.”
He continued the skill sets of the current employees “lend themselves to lots of other industries as well. That work ethic can transfer easily to an industrial job or customer service with a retailer.
“There’s going to be opportunities for the people who are going to lose their jobs.
“We recognize call centres don’t last forever and we’ve been pretty lucky to have them here for this long.”
Dyke suggested the writing may have been on the wall for some time.
“When Marriott took over Starwood, they have their own call centres and they have real estate in other places. But we’re finding right now it’s not that hard to work from home.”
Dyke stressed the labour force employed at the St. Thomas centre is a valuable consideration.
“It’s not easy to find a ready, willing and able workforce that’s already trained in customer service. Ideally, if there are companies out there looking we’ll certainly tap into it.”
He added there are companies, both in the city and elsewhere, who are on the hunt for office space.
“It’s an easy place to market.”
To end on a positive note Dyke observed, “There’s lots of room for optimism going forward.
“There are a lot of jobs available in the community right now. If you drive through our industrial area there are hiring signs out everywhere.
“From Masco to Impressions Printing to all of our cannabis companies we have here are hiring right now.
“There are plenty of opportunities for people who want a job. It just depends on the kind of job they want.”
GETTING KIDS ENGAGED AT THE ELEVATED PARK
To pick up on last week’s item on the Railway City Rotary Club’s donation to the St. Thomas Elevated Park, the two musical instruments are to be centrepieces in what will become a 75-foot-long kid’s play zone.
Project lead Serge Lavoie explained, in addition to the 13-foot tower comprised of eight tubular chimes there will also be a five-note chime set.
Complimenting those two will be a 20-foot talking tube or Aerophone which will carry conversations through a partially buried sculptured pipe.
And, if that is not enough to make it a fun hangout for kids, Lavoie notes there will also be a long balance beam – long as in about 30 feet – and all along the sidewalk will be painted games like hopscotch and twister.
“The whole area is a low-impact, non-scary play area for the kids to get engaged,” advises Lavoie. “There will be lots of colour here.
“Everything here is designed to give kids something to do while parents sit and watch.”
The plan is to create a grassy area at the play zone, says Lavoie.
“By the end of August this will all be grass but first we have to put in our electricity so we are running conduit and wiring through here.
“We’ll be putting the surveillance system in at the same time we put in the lighting.”
And, a top priority as well this summer is repairs to Christine Dewancker’s inspiring sculpture, The Faraway Nearby. The 11-piece work was damaged once again earlier this year.
Lavoie says once it is reinstalled it will be illuminated at night.
The plan is to have all of this in place by the end of summer with the multi-year undertaking being the 3.5 km linear arboretum out to Lyle Road in Southwold.
“We’ll have 40 trees go up this year and during the summer we will have horticulturalists from the St. Thomas Field Naturalist Club identifying the trees that are already there.
“And then students at Fanshawe College are going to map them for us and it will all go into a database and that will be the beginning of our formal arboretum project.”
Once again illustrating what Lavoie refers to as the St. Thomas Elevated Park being built by the community for the community.”
CITY POOL TO SIT SILENT THIS SUMMER
As we announced yesterday (July 3) on myFM, Jaycees Pool likely will be a no-go this summer.
At a special meeting of council the day before, city manager Wendell Graves detailed a consideration put forth by the city’s emergency response group.
“We’re recommending that we not open our pool for the summer. Because we are still in the state of emergency and the limited number of people even allowed in a pool and in order to even get staffing at this point we’re going to run out of good weeks.
“So, unfortunately, that’s where we’re at with the pool and that’s the recommendation coming from the emergency response group.”
For the youngsters, they can enjoy the city’s three splash pads. For the rest of the population, an alternative is a trip to the beach which puts added pressure on the three Lake Erie communities in Elgin with inviting access to the water.
THE RETURN OF MINOR SPORTS
On Thursday (July 2) Lisa MacLeod, Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture was the guest of Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek to announce various grants to various groups and organizations.
But it was a question directed to her following the announcement that perked up ears.
She was asked when do you see minor hockey resuming?
“If we continue to do what we’ve been doing as Ontarians, I think that myself and Minister Yurek would agree we could get into Phase 3 and start to see that happening.”
“Right now, we’re working with organizations like Canadian Sport Institute Ontario as well as Own the Podium to look at the rigorous protocols that will be required in order to get children back on to the field, on to the pitch and into the arena.
“So, those protocols we will continue to follow. They are based on World Health Organization rules and any clearance to go back to team sports, scrimmages and actual games will be green-lit by the chief medical officer of health.
“If we continue to do what we’ve been doing as Ontarians, I think that myself and Minister Yurek would agree we could get into Phase 3 and start to see that happening.
“We’re still not there yet.”
Premier Doug Ford is expected to make an announcement regarding the move to Phase 3 this coming week.
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And a reminder, I can be heard weekday afternoons as news anchor and reporter on 94.1 myFM in St. Thomas. As always, your comments and input are appreciated.