James Franks has never harboured any ambitions to live anywhere else.
The travel requirements of the affable City of Temiskaming Shores economic development officer often takes him to mining shows, investment attraction conferences, and immigration job fairs in Canada’s largest cities.
But those bustling centres of commerce hold no appeal for him.
“I just came back from Toronto and nobody knows anybody in those places. You walk down the street, everybody’s head is down and they don’t look at each other or say hello,” said Franks, the married father of two grown sons.
“That’s what I don’t like about larger places. I can generally walk down any street here and, even though I may or may not know the person, they’ll probably say hi.”
It’s the familiar faces and the ease of living in small-town Ontario that Franks most treasures.
Born in the United Kingdom, Franks was raised on a farm in Lincolnshire until the age of 10. The family was off to Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – when his mother remarried a photographer from Africa.
The outbreak of civil war in that southern Africa country prompted a family move to Canada where one of his four step-sisters had married a Canadian geologist who lived in Haileybury. Franks landed in the cozy northeastern Ontario community in 1980.
The Cambrian College marketing graduate began his public service career in the late 1990s as the Town of Haileybury’s special events coordinator, tasked with staging community events to boost tourism.
When his recreational director boss left the post, Franks slid into his position until the 2004 amalgamation of Haileybury, New Liskeard and Dymond Township when he was reassigned into a tourism and event coordinator role with the new City of Temiskaming Shores. The economic development officer’s title came in 2010.
Now at 22 years with the municipality, Franks remembers amalgamation being a “chosen” process by the three communities, rather than “forced” upon them by the province.
Urban sprawl in New Liskeard had gotten to the point where the community basically ran out of developable space. The only direction was to expand south into Haileybury or north into Dymond.
Haileybury had abundant land but its commercial district was stagnating, Highway 11 having bypassed the town years before.
Dymond Township was keen to tie into New Liskeard’s water treatment system since their water quality test scores weren’t the greatest.
As new municipal building was constructed on the Haileybury waterfront and opened in 2007.
“I think it was a good process. It didn’t get jammed down anybody’s throat,” said Franks of the methodical four-year process. “But not everybody was excited about it.”
The expanded tax base enabled the municipality to invest in multi-million-dollar infrastructure projects.
In accepting the economic development officer’s job, Franks reflects that he possessed little knowledge of what it entailed, aside from what he gleaned from a two-week University of Waterloo course.
But his outgoing nature and hometown connections made him inherently qualified for the role.
“My job is to know people in the community, that’s one of the benefits of being from here. It’s a connector position to help businesses and groups find the right fit for what they need, whether it’s labour, support, services or money.”
One of his proudest professional accomplishments is their ongoing success in spearheading the annual Northern Ontario Mining Showcase at one of the world’s biggest mining show, the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s (PDAC) conference held in Toronto every March.
What began as a modest historical display at PDAC has morphed into a tradeshow pavilion of more than 100 Northern Ontario mining supply and service companies.
With FedNor support, the Showcase provides an international platform for business owners who otherwise couldn’t afford to attend the convention. The resulting connections they make and sales secured is tangible proof of marketing dollars well spent.
At the same time, Franks hopes it boosts the municipality’s profile as a welcoming and pro-business community that supports local manufacturers.
“I hope in the long term it translates into businesses considering Temiskaming Shores as a location to look for expansion and development.”
In steering a newly created economic development corporation, Franks is rolling out a strategic plan to identify new and existing opportunities for his board of directors.
Temiskaming Shores has always been a regional hub for retail, commerce, education, tourism and industrial supply. Often overlooked is its historical connection to the Great Clay Belt and agriculture.
Years before, farmland to the north, in Matheson and Cochrane, were pasture land for beef cattle, but a greater diversity of cash crops is being grown today, said Franks.
“Climate change is helping this area when it comes to that. Our growing season is longer and the communities are becoming more successful.”
That provides an opportunity to attract more agricultural equipment and service suppliers to support that activity.
The 2009 International Plowing Match, staged in nearby Earlton, had a profound impact in revitalizing local agriculture. Many outside attendees saw the area’s potential and began acquiring acreage.
“The value of land basically doubled shortly after the event,” said Franks, with southern Ontario investors and local farmers scooping up large tracts of land.
“All of a sudden more land was cleared. Scrub land that had sat for years, maybe swampy, people were now investing in and tiling it.
“But because of that (event), our area is pretty much sold out,” said Franks. “It still costs peanuts, relative to land value in southern Ontario, but it’s creating overall wealth in the community and we expect that will continue.”
With many Northern Ontario communities experiencing a rapidly aging population and scarcity of skilled labour, workforce attraction – particularly focused on newcomers to Canada – is a priority for Franks.
“When it comes to any sector meeting with forestry, trucking, retail service, (attracting) people is the biggest issue. We don’t have people to fill jobs.”
He’s hopeful that the proposed federal Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot, which the largest Northern Ontario cities have applied to host, becomes a successful template that the entire region can tap into.
“It’s what the whole North needs.”