Vicki Blanchard, Sioux Lookout’s economic development manager, is an admitted “map freak.”
When she started at her new position in early March with marching orders to make this town of 5,500 “investment ready” for development, Blanchard referred to her love of cartography to begin strategizing.
The town and its busy airport has always been a regional hub providing goods and services to 29 remote communities, including a few in the Ring of Fire.
Blanchard wants to grow out and enhance that capability with some social enterprise, mining and energy initiatives on her agenda.
A resident of nearby Dryden, she shifted over last winter from a development position with the municipality of Greenstone where she spent four years in “Ring of Fire boot camp.”
The rural municipality was knee-deep in the lobbying process, competing with Sudbury and Thunder Bay, in trying to convince Cliffs Natural Resources to site its proposed ferrochrome refinery in the village of Nakina.
Along the way, she developed strong relationships with the leadership of the Matawa First Nations and worked with Bob Rae working on the Ring of Fire regional framework agreement.
Blanchard assesses Sioux Lookout as having some catching up to do.
“We’re four years behind the Thunder Bay-Superior district with respect to the Ring of Fire.”
The popular thinking was that Sioux Lookout was too far west to take advantage of any development in the James Bay region, especially if a transportation corridor were to take a north-south route.
Blanchard strongly believes there will be two routes into the future mining camp, a north-south right-of-way to haul ore out of the Ring and an east-west road delivering consumer goods to the communities.
And Sioux Lookout is perfectly positioned to take advantage of that latter traffic as a full-service staging base.
A critical element will be modernizing the airport’s infrastructure.
Government funding applications have been filed supporting a passenger terminal renovation and expansion.
Final approvals are still pending but the proposed $12.5-million project would be a three-way funding split between the town, provincial and federal governments.
It’s long overdue for one of Ontario’s busiest airports, handling about 30,000 aircraft movements and 120,000 passengers annually.
The airport also serves as a critical piece of a First Nation-municipal economic and social enterprise project that would see Sioux Lookout become a warehousing and distribution centre to deliver affordable and healthy foods to remote communities.
The initiative involves Blanchard’s counterparts at Lac Seul and Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nations, Lakehead University, and a Dryden food co-op, with funding from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers.
A feasibility study and business plan are being prepared over the next few months to arrive at a project cost while the search goes on for logistics partners.
To prepare for future growth, Blanchard has Sioux Lookout on the energy ministry’s radar to be finally connected to natural gas under the province’s long-term regional power plan for northwestern Ontario. It’s a municipality priority if the town wants to be competitive, she said.
“It’s largely a residential issue, but to attract industry we need it. Communities of 5,000 can no longer sustain themselves just on taxes. Our municipal infrastructure is over 100 years old and we don’t have enough money unless we grow our commercial-industrial base.”
Boosting mineral exploration activity in the area also remains high on her to-do list.
She’s contacted the Ontario Geological Survey (OGS) in Thunder Bay asking that Sioux Lookout be placed in the 2015 queue for an airborne geophysical survey to identify promising spots for exploration, particularly around Savant and Sturgeon Lakes.
The last surveys of the area were done in the 1980s and 1990s. Although there are a few promising gold plays near Sioux Lookout, Blanchard said there are still “several large gaps” that need to be identified.