In Northern Ontario, historically, we have lived and died with big ideas. Who could dream bigger than our prospectors, who have discovered billions of dollars of gold and uranium and nickel and precious metals? What could be more dramatic than the fur trade, or hydropower, or making steel, or establishing huge international papermaking and lumber operations?
Northern Ontario has prospered on some big historical bets made by international capital that saw opportunity and money to be made with our resources. The gains in the last 30 years have been more incremental with big entrepreneurship more defensive than offensive. Paper companies have closed or gone bankrupt and a few have been resuscitated. Algoma Steel has been saved more than once from financial ruin and the same can be said for Spruce Falls Power and Paper and others. Elliot Lake is a retirement community. It takes just as much creativity and energy to save a business or a town as to launch one.
With peak resource employment behind us, entrepreneurship has been focused on smaller resource-related products and services. The mining supply and services business in Northern Ontario is a case in point. We have hundreds of highly sophisticated innovative companies exporting intellectual capital around the world at considerable profit. Many of them have won Northern Ontario Business Awards. It is a transformation from mining ore to selling productivity. A very different vibe.
When we see a big idea these days, it takes a moment to find our muscle memory. My favourite big idea of late is Jason McLennan’s plan to transform Vale’s (INCO’s) Superstack in Sudbury from one of the worst sulphur polluters in the world to the highest clean-energy solar panel array in the world.
Just look at the picture. It makes you smile, it is so preposterous. Some interesting facts. Our superstack is about the same height as the Empire State Building in New York and considerably higher than the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Why is it important? We live in a time requiring a dramatic change in priorities. Nothing could better represent Sudbury’s unbelievable environmental revolution than a reconstituted Superstack. People would come from far and wide to take an elevator ride to the top of this iconic infrastructure to see the remains of environmental degradation and the joy of our astounding regeneration.
It’s good for tourism, it’s good to generate clean energy, and it’s good to involve our school of architecture in innovative transformation. It’s good for Vale, which could use a positive environmental storyline, and it would be a magnet for attracting young people to the North who want to work in a community that takes its environmental footprint seriously and has the social chutzpah and engineering gravitas to invite the world to experience something they will see nowhere else.
I hope the community finds a way to test the feasibility of this brilliance. These are initiatives that define communities forever.
If you want to know more about the Sudbury boy who thought this up, go to mclennan-design.com.
Michael Atkins is the president and owner of the Laurentian Media Group, a diversified media company, which includes Northern Life, Sudbury.com, Sudbury Living Magazine and Northern Ontario Business.