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Communities on the Move: Rivalry breeds collaboration

Pan-northern economic development efforts culminate with Ontario's North Economic Development Corp.
Thunder Bay cruise ship
Thunder Bay played host to a number of cruise ship visits this summer. (File photo)

It’s no secret that there have long been rivalries between Northern Ontario’s biggest communities. But behind the usually good-natured banter, there’s actually a strong collaborative spirit that has helped them achieve common goals.

That’s never more true than when it comes to economic development.

“Despite the fact that we’re all competing for investment in Northern Ontario, we really do believe that what’s good for one community in the North is good for the North,” said Erin Richmond, the manager of economic development for North Bay.

That’s why, in 2005, in the interest of cooperation, the five major Northern Ontario cities banded together to form Ontario’s North Economic Development Corporation (ONEDC) to create a bigger presence at the funding tables.

Under the not-for-profit entity, the big five — North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Thunder Bay and Timmins — work together to leverage knowledge, capacity, and financial resources to push forward priority initiatives.

“It enabled us to chart our own path forward and to work on projects that we have identified as being important to us and important to the region,” Richmond said.

She joined other northern economic development officers online during a Nov. 9 presentation hosted by the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) outlining the breadth of initiatives currently being undertaken by the Northern Ontario communities.

FONOM, an advocacy body that represents 110 communities across the North, regularly hosts morning webinars for learning about activity in Northern Ontario.

Timmins to boost housing stock

In Timmins, where there’s a shortage of new residential construction, the Timmins Housing Task Force has been formed to examine how to add units to its existing housing stock.

“There are people that want to move to our community, but we don’t have the houses available for them,” said Christy Marinig, CEO of the Timmins Economic Development Corp. “We haven’t had many new housing starts in probably 20 years, so it’s really important and the stakeholders suggested that we work collectively to start a task force.”

Its work will get underway in the new year, she noted. The task force will look at how to secure funding, and what incentives the city can put in place to attract developers to the community.

Sault Ste. Marie is continuing on its path to being the “green energy capital of North America,” a title it adopted several years ago after drawing solar, wind and hydroelectric energy projects to the city.

Green energy driving Sault priorities

Rick Van Staveren, the city’s director of economic development, said the Sault has now set its sights on expanding into other eco-friendly initiatives.

Primary among them is the production of green hydrogen, which is generated using electrical current to separate hydrogen from the oxygen in water. Van Staveren said an Australian firm has recently toured the city with the potential of setting up plants locally to produce green hydrogen.

“Green hydrogen really is one of the fuels of the future,” he said. “I think that this is something that every community in Northern Ontario will benefit from should we get the production underway. So we’re definitely taking a hard look at green hydrogen and the production.”

Additionally, the community is assessing the potential of constructing mass timber buildings and using biomass, tree waste like sawdust and chips that’s leftover after wood is processed into lumber.

“Working with our partners, we expect to be able to start demonstrating some actual projects that will be utilizing biomass and forest waste,” Van Staveren said.

Thunder Bay cruising into tourism boom

After a decade of lobbying for cruise ships to come to its city, Thunder Bay finally secured agreements with Viking Cruise Ships this year.

In 2022, ships visited the city nine times, noted Jamie Taylor, CEO of the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission. The largest held 378 passengers and 275 crew members.

“That was a big influx of people coming to our community,” Taylor said.

Visitors toured Kakabeka Falls, Fort William Historical Park, Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, and Silver Islet, a former mining town. It was the latter attraction, where visitors can explore the Silver Islet Mine shaft, that earned the city a top rating among Viking’s Great Lakes destinations.

Locally, cruise ship activity generated $6 million in economic impact, while the city earned $10 million in estimated global media value, Taylor said.

In addition, 72 local businesses — offering services like foodservice, excursions, and waste disposal — benefitted from the activity.
“A lot of businesses were able to benefit, which was great, and that created approximately 90 full-time equivalent jobs in our community,” Taylor said.

For 2023, Thunder Bay has confirmed 11 cruise ship visits from three ships, and additional operators have been confirmed for 2024 and 2025, she added.

Electric vehicles leading Sudbury's future

Sudbury has rallied around the growing interest in battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and multiple organizations in that city are working to fashion the city into a hub for BEV expertise.

With more than 300 mining supply and service companies in the city and a long history of mining and reclamation, Sudbury has the experience to take electric mining to the next level, according to Meredith Armstrong, the city’s director of economic development.

Miners Vale and Glencore are mining the minerals needed to make the batteries for BEVs, while the NORCAT innovation centre is supporting companies developing new related technology.

Collège Boréal is offering a course to train technicians in the maintenance of BEVs, while Cambrian College is building an on-campus BEV lab, which would accelerate the development of technology, host a testing space, and train tradespeople to work on BEVs.

“It’s become clear that we have the opportunity to position Northern Ontario as a crux point and the connector between the raw materials and that expertise we have across Northern Ontario, and the automakers and the auto manufacturing powerhouse that is southern Ontario,” Armstrong said. “And so that’s really the opportunity we’re seizing now.”

Incentives abound in North Bay

Just down the highway in North Bay, that city in 2020 launched a new growth community incentive plan (CIP), which Richmond called “one of the most comprehensive in Ontario.”

It differs from a traditional CIP in that it has broadened scope, she noted, with target areas including industrial, downtown, housing, and waterfront.

“We took a holistic approach to reimagining our CIP,” Richmond said.

That means incorporating community elements into the downtown, such as public art, parking and landscaping, along with incentives to attract new businesses, such as rebates on transit or parking passes used by downtown employees.

Since its inception, the city has processed 45 applications to the CIP, which represents a total private investment of more than $108 million and an additional leveraging of $1.5 million in municipal contributions, which went to development of new residential units, facade improvements and job creation, she added.

Exporting helps companies diversify

Of all the projects supported by ONEDC, the most successful has been the Northern Ontario Exports Program (NOEP), said Jenni Myllynen, the program’s manager.

Launched 12 years ago to help the mining service and supply sector diversify, it’s since branched out to include small and medium-sized enterprises in multiple sectors. Serving a catchment area stretching from Parry Sound to the Manitoba border, NOEP provides funds and advisory services to SMEs that want to export their product or services, or diversify their target market.

In its time, NOEP has supported nearly 600 companies, but it’s been particularly successful in the last three years, Myllynen said.

Since 2021, the program has provided 130 export-building projects with $1.5 million in grant funding.

Myllynen said for every dollar that NOEP invests in a company, that company invests roughly $2 into their export-building activities.

“That’s showing commitment not only from the individual company level, but that’s further increasing the investment and production here in Northern Ontario, the marketing activity here in Northern Ontario,” she said.

“So there’s real skin in the game in the companies that we’re supporting.”

Those 130 companies have generated short-term sales of $7 million and projected long-term sales of $62 million, Myllynen said, while 136 new positions are expected to be created and another 546 will be maintained.

“For Northern Ontario, that’s huge, and that’s just within the last three years.”