A slew of coming new industrial
development has the Town of Atikokan rolling out the welcome mat to
The sleepy northwestern Ontario town of
3,300 is making early preparations to host one of Canada's largest
open-pit gold mines.
The municipality has released an
accommodations study to entice builders to beat a path down Highway
11 to the former iron ore mining town, 180 km west of Thunder Bay.
With a new mine on the horizon and
several other job-creating developments on the schedule, the town
anticipates a surge of construction workers arriving in the very near
future, followed by the more permanent jobs in mining, power
generation and wood pellet manufacturing.
A report by Crupi Consulting of Thunder
Bay said Atikokan is facing a severe shortage of housing with “almost
zero availability” for homes and rental units.
Five major development projects, plus
an addition onto the hospital, could create an estimated 1,500 to
1,700 construction jobs over the next five to seven years, followed
by the promise of as many as 800 to 1,000 permanent jobs.
For a town that's dealt with a decade's
worth of disappointment in the forest industry, good fortune is
coming in waves.
Osisko Mining expects to have 14 years
of gold production if its Hammond Reef open-pit operation starts up
The Montreal miner told Crupi they
anticipate creating 800 construction jobs in 2013 and 2014, followed
by 540 mining jobs by 2015.
Ontario Power Generation's (OPG) former
coal burning plant, the Atikokan Generating Station, is undergoing a
$170-million conversion to handle wood pellets. A workforce of 200
arrives on site next year.
A start-up company, Atikokan Renewable
Fuels, is refurbishing the former Fibratech particleboard plant to
make wood pellets. The plant could create jobs for 157 if its secures
contracts with OPG and with European utilities.
There are also more spinoffs expected
if Bending Lake Iron Group develops its iron ore property near
Ignace, 70 km to the north. The company will need a construction crew
of 170 starting in 2016 and expects a more permanent workforce of 64
A long-shot possibility is Cassandra
Enterprises, which has tentative plans for a 1,300-megawatt
hydroelectric pump storage project in one of the water-filled pits of
the old Steep Rock mine. It could generate 20 to 40 jobs, but the
province has declared that environmentally sensitive area to be
off-limits to development for now.
Mining support services could net 100
more jobs past 2017.
“This is all great news and we have
to prepare for it,” said Mayor Dennis Brown.
“Our biggest need is in homes,
apartments and condos.”
Some jobs will be filled by the local
workforce, but many more will need places to stay.
The municipality took its message to
Thunder Bay in late July to showcase the opportunities at an
invitation-only investors presentation to entice builders, developers
Consultant Franco Crupi said now's the
time for the town and developers to get shovels in the ground to
avoid reaching a housing bottleneck.
“It won't be in the first or second
year, but towards the third and fourth year, they're going to be
The town has 70 lots on the books for a
planned subdivision, but that's not nearly enough for the long haul.
The report said the current housing
demand is for 157 units today and it's forecasted to increase to 540
“Those coming to town have a hard
time finding units,” said Crupi. “If there's 1,000 new jobs in
the next five years, there's going to be a mad scramble for housing.”
Crupi said one developer is considering
buying some Atikokan property to erect a 20-unit apartment, and a
mobile supplier is thinking about placing a demonstration home in the
If developers built on spec, Crupi said
“houses would be sold immediately.”
What's needed is an array of starter
and more upscale homes for well-paying jobs in the mining industry.
Brown wants to avoid a Fort
McMurray-type situation with a transient, commuter workforce that
adds nothing to the tax base.
“We don't want people flying in and
out. We want people to live, work and play here. That's why were
doing this (investors event) to make conditions right so we can
market Atikokan as a great place.”
Crupi said keeping the workforce housed
in town is a preference of Osisko as well, but that's something to be
negotiated between the mining company and the town.
“They need to work with developers
and the municipality and make this thing work if they want suitable
housing in a short period of time.”
With the town's population rapidly
aging, Brown said more homes could be put on the market by seniors if
more apartments were available.
The Town of Atikokan is undergoing some
internal revisons of its own as it petitions the Ontario government
for funds to hire a town planner to control growth.
There will likely be upgrades to
Atikokan's water and sewer infrastructure, but that didn't seem a
concern for Brown, who mentioned that the town once housed 7,000
residents during the heydays of the Steep Rock iron ore mine in the
If there’s a major house crunch
coming, Atikokan realtor Deb Coulson isn’t seeing it yet.
“My phone isn’t ringing off the
wall,” said the owner of Avenue A Realty. “I don’t have a
hundred people looking for homes.”
Despite all the hype, Coulson said the
local housing market remains flat. A 1,200-square-foot home in
Atikokan ranges between $60,000 and $160,000.
She has 33 listings of mostly
residential, commercial, lakefront and highway properties.
“Four or five years ago we had three
times that many when the (Sapawe) mill first closed.”
What’s occupying most residents’
minds, she said, are the coming layoffs by Osisko starting in
September as the exploration phase at Hammond Reef winds down.
Last fall, Osisko was conducting one of
the most intensive exploration projects in Canada with 18 drills
“I’m dealing with people who want
to sell their homes now.”
There’s no word from the tight-lipped
Quebec miner if those employees will be transitioned into new work.
“People don’t know if they’re
going to have jobs in the next little while, so this is a sad time
for some,” she said.
Many locals are doing the long commute
to mining jobs in Red Lake and north of Thunder Bay, leaving their
families behind, said Coulson. Others have made the permanent move
out west to Alberta and Saskatchewan while holding onto their
Atikokan homes thinking they’ll get a better price when more people
Coulson said the town is in limbo until
Osisko gives the green light for a mine. And people aren’t likely
to wait around without work for six months to a year or more until
the company makes a final decision.
“I know they have a very different
outlook than what the economic development people are looking at.”