When northwestern Ontario's forest industry began taking a dive during the last decade, Grant Brodeur could see the writing on the wall.
The CEO of Secure Store is now among more than 100 companies in the Thunder Bay area that have changed gears, restocked their parts rooms, and transitioned from catering exclusively to forestry over to the mining sector.
His company provides modular housing and logistical support for exploration and mining camp sites, serving clients such as Goldcorp-Musselwhite, Magma Metals and Osisko.
Brodeur was displaying his services at the Northwestern Ontario Mines and Minerals Symposium in Thunder Bay in early April.
“Those skills are transferrable,” said Brodeur, who began working in Secure Store's predecessor company, Broland Reforestation, as a tree planter. “Many of us have worked in fire suppression so we know emergency logistics and can set up in the middle of nowhere.”
The company, which also specializes in freight-forwarding and logistics management, can quickly establish bush camps and hook up water and sewer systems, treatment plants, power and propane connections, kitchen facilities and wash trailers.
At its Highway 527 shop, northwest of Thunder Bay, it customizes and insulates large 20- and 40-foot steel shipping containers into office trailers and workforce housing.
Now in his third year of exhibiting at the symposium, Brodeur said the venue is the perfect opportunity to touch base with existing clients and meet new ones that will diversify his business.
“I always have a hard time when someone calls and asks me if I can do something. I always say yes and figure out how to do it later.”
Five years ago, the low-profile mining and exploration industry didn't even register on the city's radar. But with the current global commodities super-cycle, this growing sector is a vital cog in the city's economic development and industrial marketing strategy.
The signs of progress are everywhere.
Quebec's Osisko plans to bring its Hammond Reef gold deposit at Atikokan into production by late 2015 or early 2016.
Stillwater Mining found a deep-pocketed partner in Japan's Mitsubishi to bring its Marathon PGM project on the north shore of Lake Superior into eventual operation.
Lakehead University wants to beef up its geology department into a mining centre of excellence for exploration, and Cliffs Natural Resources plans to invest $75 million this year on its chromite project in the Ring of Fire.
While the Ohio miner appears to be leaning towards placing the 400 jobs attached to a ferrochrome processing plant in Sudbury, Garry Clark, executive director of the Ontario Prospectors Association (OPA), expects Thunder Bay will benefit from the actual mine development's spinoffs.
“When the Ring of Fire goes forward, Thunder Bay will be a jumping-off spot for contractors, suppliers and the workers. I'd rather see (the furnace) in Thunder Bay, but I'm happy it stays in Ontario and stays in the North.”
The OPA's annual spring show reflected the wave of optimism in the region, attracting more than 640 attendees and 100 exhibitors.
Vendors were spilling out of the main ballroom at the Valhalla Inn, into the lobby and out into an adjoining meeting room.
Clark said it's easily the best attended show since the symposium began in 1996.
“I can't see how we can expand the footprint of the show any further.”
Unlike the more-corporate climate of the annual Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada conference in Toronto, the Thunder Bay event is a less formal, more communal meeting of the exploration sector.
“There may not be deals done at the show – though sometimes there are – but there are a lot of people that make really good introductions,” said Clark.
Gold exploration represents about 80 per cent of the investment dollars flowing into the region, but there is solid interest in rare earth and base metal projects.
While Thunder Bay is well stocked with many new and existing companies engaged in engineering, aviation and exploration drilling, Clark praises the businesses that have been forward-thinking to realize these new opportunities.
“You have to give credit to these entrepreneurs because they've made the transition from a crippled forestry industry into supplying exploration and mining,” said Clark, mentioning other firms such as Wire Rope Industries, Outland Camps, KBM Resources and Haveman Brothers.
“They didn't stand still and moved into an industry where they could keep people busy and sell products.”
City leaders are starting to wrap their heads around just how big this sector can get.
The five mines in the northwest directly employ 2,550 people with major expansion and exploration programs on the way. The industry's forecast for some of the major projects could boost that workforce to more than 4,400 by 2017.
“The labour piece is just huge,” said John Mason, the mining services project manager for the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission.
Mason was part of a larger community effort last year to convince Cliffs to establish its smelter in the city, playing up its port facilities and 700 megawatts of surplus power.
Now he's helping draw up a community readiness strategy, dubbed Northwestern Ontario, 2015; a three-stage plan they plan to unveil in early 2013.
“There are a number of attributes to look at to capitalize on this sector,” said Mason, in examining opportunities and upgrades in workforce training, transportation, energy and telecommunications. The strategy will involve a substantial First Nations component as well.
The document is intended as an infrastructure wish list to government and for use as a global business attraction tool.
“We have very ambitious timelines,” said Mason. “We want to get this study out because industry's not waiting.
“Part of the thematic is looking at 13 major exploration programs that we feel will produce between 2013 – led by Rubicon Minerals in Red Lake – to 2017, and see what demands that puts on everything from housing to basic infrastructure like the water and sewer situation.”
On the housing front, Mason said Thunder Bay is “constrained,” but looks slightly better in commercial and industrial properties. Having the port facilities is a great plus.
Mason said one mining company, working west of Thunder Bay, is examining whether mill equipment, coming from overseas, can be shipped through the Port of Thunder Bay and railed or trucked to its site.
“We have to be ready for that.”