Wawa is digging into the details of what it takes to become a vibrant mining supply hub.
Last spring, the economic development corporation hired consultants McSweeney & Associates to launch a mining study to uncover business opportunities to service area mines.
The northeastern Ontario town near the shores of Lake Superior has two operating gold mines, Wesdome and Richmont, within an hour's drive, and also more than a dozen properties in various stages of exploration.
“We’re trying to determine the supply chain,” said Maury O'Neill, CEO of the Wawa Economic Development Corporation. “Where are the mines buying their goods and services? Who in Wawa is part of that supply chain? Where are the gaps in terms of money going out and how can we capture some of that money that the mines are spending for our existing business?”
The first phase to identify the opportunities was done in September.
A second phase will provide a list of actions to help local businesses grow or assist entrepreneurs start a new business. The final report comes out in November.
“What we found in the first report is that Wawa businesses are doing a pretty good job,” said O'Neill. The consultants visited many businesses and came away impressed with the dedication, entrepreneurial spirit, and savviness of the business community.
“They've taken care of a lot of the supply and goods demand that the mines have had over the years.” As a followup to the first report, the EDC and the consultants are now surveying about 50 businesses that are working or have potential to work with the mines.
“We’re trying to find out what do these businesses need to expand or grow to take these opportunities on,” said O'Neill. “The response so far has been really good.”
Many companies are asking for assistance in public funding applications to grow their business.
The study has also revealed some chronic labour issues for small business.
Quite often both the mines and their suppliers are chasing after the same skilled tradesperson. And that shortage is hindering small business expansion.
One operating gold miner, Richmont Mines, has developed its own feeder system.
It's partnering with Northern College in running a very successful common core training course that puts out between six and eight graduates every few months directly into the company's workforce.
The arrangement utilizes the local workforce and the company doesn't need to provide accommodations for what otherwise would be a transient workforce.
“It’s win-win for both,” said O'Neill.
Wesdome's workforce is about 60 per cent local, she said, but if smaller juniors like Prodigy Gold or Argonaut ramp into production, companies could start raiding each other's employees.
On the housing availability side, the first phase report recommends a development strategy. O’Neill said the distance to travel to some of the area’s more advanced mines is more than an hour’s drive away. “It’s almost impossible for companies to think that their employees can live in Wawa and commute daily.”
That recommendation applies to nearby Dubreuilville, she said, which is within 15 to 20 minutes of many of the mines and the more advanced projects.
“But for mining to have an economic impact we need the people to live here,” said O'Neill.
Yet for the companies to get their workforce to show up on time and safely every day, it appears they must live on site in a work camp.
Recruiting miners and their families means having to find a job for a spouse, something that's not always easy in a small town.
O'Neill said discussions have started with the mining companies about finding ways to shorten the commute time either with an alternative road or bus transportation.
To address an issue about the lack of retail space, O'Neill said the EDC will take stock of the town's inventory of vacant buildings and determine if there is a need for business incubator space or if some buildings can be redeveloped into retail space to fit today's demand.
“We are looking at all the recommendations and hoping in phase two that these get prioritized to help the community take advantage of what we have,” said O'Neill.
Wawa was also preparing last month to host its first-ever Mining Week, Oct. 21-25.
Festivities include a public tour of Wesdome's assay lab, a small business funding luncheon and a career day at the local high school attended by 20 employers, including the mining companies, to outline upcoming career opportunities.