The City of Thunder Bay expects the coming mining boom to fill up a largely vacant but high-profile light industrial park.
Finding occupants for the municipally-owned Innova Business Park has been a source of frustration since its inception in 1997.
But should a dozen or so mining projects in the northwest and the James Bay Ring of Fire get the green light over the next few years, the city wants to be prepared by having plenty of serviceable land available.
Thunder Bay has aspirations to grow into a major service hub and there's renewed hope that promoting the 71-acre industrial park to suppliers and professional firms will ease future development pressures.
“We want to make sure we have the land available for when it's needed,” said Mark Smith, the city's development services manager. Situated in Thunder Bay's inner core near two major expressways, Innova has always been a choice piece of property.
“Innova was developed at a time when we were watching industrial land get gobbled up quite quickly,” said Smith, just prior to the forest industry's crash. At the same time, construction was starting for a new hospital and the city's health sciences sector was in its infancy. With that in mind, Innova was earmarked to become a cluster for high-tech startups, R & D companies and medical firms.
When that didn't pan out, Innova was envisioned as a heavy truck maintenance plaza before big box retail developers came calling and signed conditional offers for property.
Then the recession hit and everything ground to a halt. Last year, Innova was briefly considered as a site for an arena complex before those plans shifted to the waterfront.
Two consultants' studies suggest that Innova is best suited for mining business and light industry. To date, the park's two longest-serving occupants are Buchanan Forest Products and Environment Canada. More recently, two Thunder Bay engineering firms, who serve mining clients, decided to build new headquarters at Innova.
True Grit Consulting cut the ribbon last year on its new 10,500-square-foot corporate digs while Genivar is building its new offices nearby. Another property has been sold on spec to an unnamed buyer.
“We're seeing within the central area of Innova some real expansion happening,” said Smith.
With flexible lot sizes, fibre optics, threephase power, natural gas and new water and sewer infrastructure, Innova has possibilities to become a business hub for mining professional and technical services.
With its proximity to the new hospital and its research institute, Confederation College and Lakehead University just up Golf Links Road, Smith believes Innova could land some economic spinoffs. Millions were spent to lengthen access roads, including a widening of Golf Links to four lanes this summer, and there are plans to landscape the properties and dress up the park's entrances.
“When we see what's going on with expansion at Confederation, Lakehead (and its proposed Centre of Excellence for Sustaining Mining) and the hospital, we've got this institutional corridor and we see links between these things,” said Smith.
He acknowledges this development path will take longer to build out Innova.
“What we have done, no private sector developer could afford to do; to hold land and wait for what we hope is the right use. I'm sure we could have sold Innova Park many times over but not for uses that would be in the best uses of the community.”
There are no plans to introduce any incentives to draw in companies. Thunder Bay already has a policy of no development fees and has no immediate plans to change that. This time, the city has retained a commercial realtor to market the property.
“Our role as municipal government is to make sure we've set the stage and that those opportunities are there,” said Smith. “If the private sector was meeting the needs of industrial users then the city wouldn't have a role to play. Industry is the backbone of the community and that's an area that we have been involved.”