Northern Economist 2.0

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Thunder Bay Building Permits: A Reality Check

A recent TBnewswatch story reported  the estimated value of building permits in Thunder Bay in 2017 was up substantially from the year before  at 146 million dollars.  Based on the numbers presented in the story, the increase in 2017 can be calculated at approximately 55 percent.  This is of course an upbeat year end story. Given the coming year will see both a provincial and municipal election, one can expect these types of numbers to be presented by local politicians as evidence that Thunder Bay's economy is doing well. However, it is important to adjust these kinds of number for inflation - that is present them in real dollars - as well as look at more than two years of data.

This is done in Figure 1.  Using annual total value of building permit numbers from Statistics Canada for 1998 to 2016 and adding the 2017 estimate from the City of Thunder Bay's Chief Building Official and then deflating using the CPI, the real value (in 2016 dollars) of total building permits is presented.  The good news is that 2017 is indeed up from 2016 but there has been an overall downward trend from peaks in real value reached in 2012 and 2013. Over a longer term view, a fitted linear trend suggests that there has been a slight increase in the real value of permits since the late 1990s but the 2017 performance is really not much higher than a decade ago or even two decades ago.

One can view the above chart as good news in the sense that construction activity over time in Thunder Bay over the long haul has been reasonably stable and perhaps even characterized by some very modest growth.  It should be noted that this activity is composed mainly of residential followed by institutional and government construction projects.  Indeed, the peaks in Figure 1 are much less impressive once you remove the government and institutional permit values. 

The composition of these permits is provided in Figures 2 and 3.  Figure 2 presents an area graph based on annual numbers while Figure 3 simply aggregates all the permits since 1998.  Nearly thirty percent  building permits since 1998 are of institutional and public sector origin.  Industrial permits are below 10 percent.  Commercial permits have been surprisingly large as a proportion of the total which is actually a cause for some optimism given that they reflect private sector perceptions of economic opportunities in Thunder Bay.