For Anthony Friedrich, Manitouwadge's new economic development officer, his first few months have been spent tapping local opinion and brainstorming how to draw visitors and business like a magnet up to the end of Highway 614.
Friedrich started his new job Nov. 28, after spending six years as community development officer in nearby Schreiber.
“My first month and a half, I still didn't know all the names in the office,” he laughs. “Now I can walk into some of the businesses and know them fairly well and have a conversation with them. I'm trying to build those relationships.”
The former mining town has dabbled in marketing itself as an Elliot Lake-style retirement community and even stretched in vain to attract Chinese students to settle in the township to learn English.
Friedrich knew coming into Manitouwadge that its greatest challenge is that it's not on the Trans-Canada Highway.
“We're 54 kilometres off the highway and that creates a whole set of unique challenges. But now that I'm here, I can start turning those into pluses.”
One positive he's found is an already-thriving tourism lodge sector. One of his early initiatives is to find ways to partner up and create packages to market to the rest of the world.
Tourism and recreation remain key economic drivers for the community of 2,100.
For years, the town has branded itself with its marketing slogan, 'Play in the Extreme.'
The economic development corporation and town council are now re-evaluating if that campaign needs to be updated or scrapped by consulting with the business community.
Judging how successful the campaign has been is difficult to gauge, but Friedrich hopes to produce some tangible numbers by tracking tourists through log books and Google analytics on the town's website.
“We're not going to pull rubber tire traffic off the road. I had trouble in Schreiber pulling them 200 feet off the road. Manitouwadge has to be the end destination.”
He's found that local outfitters have been very creative in attracting the “upper echelon” traveller such as fly-in tourists who frequent the Manitouwadge airport.
“That's a new market we're just starting to tap into.”
While an attempt by a local entrepreneur to launch a charter air service didn't pan out, there are other options being studied for the airport.
“We have some state-of-the-art facilities with a local weather station on-site offering real time weather over my mobile phone or over the web,” said Friedrich.
And a new GPS landing system will be running this summer to provide landing distances for pilots arriving in bad weather.
The municipality is looking to construct a new hangar that can accommodate PC-12-type aircraft, but needs another partner or two to come aboard. “That's certainly in the works,” said Friedrich.
Finding a new owner for the vacant Manitouwadge Motel Inn has been a chore. The 24-unit motel, the only one in town, has been empty since 2007 when the owner went into tax arrears.
The building went to tender, but no written proposals arrived by the January deadline. But Friedrich said there still remains some interest out there.
“Perception-wise, it's a setback, but people don't realize there are other options to stay in Manitouwadge.
“We still have our bed and breakfasts; it's not like we don't have any accommodations at all.”
He estimates the town can accommodate about 100 to 125 overnight visitors.
In preparing for future growth, Manitouwadge decided to start with a somewhat clean slate.
Back in 2009, the town launched a demolition program to rid the community of aging and derelict buildings. That program still continues with Friedrich's arrival, including the upcoming razing of a bowling alley that will be cleared and sodded to create a green space.
“A set of apartment buildings came down and now we have three to four acres of very useable, marketable land.”
What kind of businesses should fill those lots has yet to be determined.
Friedrich had hoped to conduct an industrial market study last winter, but those plans are on hold pending the approval of his $20,000 provincial application to the Northern Community Investment Readiness program.
While certainly off the beaten path, Manitouwadge is in the middle of a sizeable wood basket and is a partner with Marathon and Pic River First Nation on a new provincial pilot program, known as a Local Forest Management Corporation, to community-manage area Crown forests.
Though the province has yet to provide details on getting the initiative started, Friedrich is hopeful that local businesses and loggers can hang on long enough to see the eventual benefits.