When a number of breaks in Little Current's force main in the mid-2000s led to a series of boil water advisories, the Town of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands (NEMI) knew upgrades were needed. Now, those improvements have resulted in an economic development initiative that's injecting new life into the town.
Little Current is home to a new subdivision with 35 residential and five light industrial serviced lots available for purchase, the first serviced lots to be developed in recent years.
“We had an inventory of about four residential lots in this municipality at that time, which is a very small inventory,” said Dave Williamson, NEMI's chief administrative officer. “So we recognized there was a need to increase the inventory of residential lots for sale if we wanted to continue to expand our tax base, which is critical in any community.”
The idea for the new subdivision, which sits at the southwest end of town, was proposed after it was deemed necessary to replace crumbling water and sewer infrastructure more than 60 years old, Williamson said. Cracks had appeared in the force main, the main pipe running between the town's pump station and the sewage lagoons, causing the boil water advisories.
Town council approved a $2.4-million project to replace the force main—$1.1 million of which came from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. (NOHFC)–which would allow the town to service existing industrial lands, create capacity for a new hotel being built in the town, and run a second line through what, at the time, was an empty field.
Developers had shied away from developing in NEMI because of the tough topography, Williamson noted. Shallow soil followed by thick rock meant lots of expensive drilling and blasting to enable water and sewer installation. If the town could provide serviced lots, it might encourage more developers to the municipality, the council reasoned.
“Since we had a trench going through anyway, it made sense then to put in a second trench for water and service a number of lots that were adjacent to the route of the force main going through,” Williamson said.
It cost $860,000 to service the residential lots, including road installation and landscaping, and $168,000 for the light industrial lots, which required hydro only since septic systems can be used for sewer and water. The NOHFC came through once again for the town, paying half the cost of servicing the industrial lots.
The residential lots are now on the market, and three have been sold. Lots aren't flying off the municipality's books, but Williamson said it was never the town's plan to get into the real estate business.
“When we went into this, council knew that this whole project was predicated on long-term thinking,” Williamson said. “We knew we weren't going to sell 35 lots the next day, that we were going to end up holding these lots for a long period of time, but it does provide the inventory we need for people who want to build new homes in our community, in terms of serviced lots.”
The light industrial lots, too, are ready for market, and there has been some interest, but Williamson emphasizes the town is not competing with the private sector, and there remains industrial land suited to more heavy manufacturing in the west part of town.
The town would prefer to see a development happen slowly to ensure a proper fit, and strict conditions will require that any light industrial venture won't disturb residents, Williamson noted. Storage or light industrial in a contained structure have been suggested as preferred choices.
Little Current won't see big smokestacks, an automobile factory or heavy industrial, Williamson said, both because the town is far removed from the primary markets and because it doesn't fit in with the town's identity.
But the municipality does welcome growth, so remains strategic and patient in its approach.
“We do want to grow our community, but we do want to grow it strategically,” Williamson said. “We want to grow it in a way that enhances and develops who we are as opposed to changes who we are.”