A showcase event designed to spotlight development opportunities in Atikokan has produced one solid lead.
A relatively new entity, Wasaya-Dowland Contracting, has stepped forward to talk with town officials from the northwestern Ontario community of 3,300 to discuss ways to solve a housing crunch.
Wasaya-Dowland, led by well-known Thunder Bay developers Don Wing and Ray Williamson, are putting forward a proposal to build an apartment building but also help the town in marketing some of its empty lots.
“We've had discussions with others (developers), but nobody is as definite as Don Wing and Ray Williamson,” said Atikokan Mayor Dennis Brown.
Wasaya-Dowland is a regional partnership between Thunder Bay's Wasaya Group and Dowland, a Northwest Territories-headquartered contractor. The company builds a wide range of industrial and community-related infrastructure such as for mining, transmission corridors, hospitals, recreation centres and schools.
Brown said the company is focussed on servicing First Nation communities, but it has the expertise and access to specialty steel products to replace Atikokan's aging arena.
“They'll be sending us a proposal on what they're prepared to do for the town and help us promote Atikokan.”
With the collapse of the forestry industry in the 2000s, Atikokan has studied ways to make itself attractive to outside investors. A gold deposit on the outskirts of town has presented a solution.
Osisko Mining has an environmental assessment and feasibility study underway at its 10-million-ounce Hammond Reef mine, scheduled to start production in 2016.
Along with the mine, there are four other major industrial developments coming to the area that could create 1,500 to 1,700 construction jobs over the next five to seven years. As many as 1,000 permanent jobs in mining, forestry and the industrial supply sector could follow.
The town commissioned an accommodations study that inventoried 70 lots as immediately available for development. But it's not enough for the wave of workers expected to filter into town.
Atikokan badly needs seniors' housing, assisted living facilities and condos.
“It's pretty difficult to get an apartment in Atikokan, because they're filled up,” said Brown.
If more multi-residential housing were available for seniors, it would free up more houses for newcomers.
Last summer, the municipality took its message to Thunder Bay to showcase the development opportunities at an investors presentation to draw builders and investors to town.
But to kick off this wave of construction activity, Osisko Mining has to officially greenlight its gold project. Brown thinks it's why other developers are holding off.
“People are hesitant. Osisko has done a lot of work, it looks promising but until they make the announcement, it creates uncertainty.”
Gradually, the municipality is clearing the decks for the kind of growth and prosperity it has not seen since before the Steep Rock iron ore mine closed in 1980.
The town is subdividing vacant properties into residential lots, but older, unused buildings need to be demolished to infill the town with new construction.
“We don't have a lot of money to tear down buildings and remove them, so that's one of the challenges we have as well,” said Brown.
Brown was hoping Osisko would house its workforce in town to allow the local business community to benefit from the economic spinoffs. But the company has elected to go with a work camp to attract transient skilled labour on a rotational basis.
“We have to promote our town and make it attractive so as the workers and their families will live in town. We think that will happen with young families.”
Brown said homes and properties that have come up for tax sale are being bought by speculators or are being rented out to area contractors.
Other news on the development front is encouraging.
Construction is in full swing to convert the former coal-burning Atikokan Generating Station into handling wood pellets. Ontario Power Generation hired AECON to do the conversion and about 80 contractors are working at the plant over the winter.
Atikokan Renewable Fuels was selected to supply the power station with pellet fuel. A former forestry mill on the outskirts of town is being refurbished to handle round wood and chips. That venture will create as many as 45 plant jobs.