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Making sense of the ministry’s prosperity plan - Michael Atkins (01/05)

If 2004 is any guide, miracles do happen. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series, the Tampa Bay somethings won the Stanley Cup, the Toronto Argonauts won the Grey Cup and Col. Moammar Gaddhafi threw in the towel without being invaded.

If 2004 is any guide, miracles do happen. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series, the Tampa Bay somethings won the Stanley Cup, the Toronto Argonauts won the Grey Cup and Col. Moammar Gaddhafi threw in the towel without being invaded. The Toronto Maple Leafs ... well there is a limit to any country’s miracles.

Michael Atkins
Reading the tea leaves for 2005 is tougher than usual, particularly for Northern Ontario. The recent spiteful action of the United States Department of Trade and Commerce on softwood lumber doesn’t bode well. That and a strong currency is murderous on forestry trade. On the other hand, every day they don’t let us send over a piece of lumber is an incentive to add value. It is better for us to send roof trusses than logs. Too bad we don’t do more about it. Too bad the provincial government doesn’t see this as an opportunity to recalibrate our forest industry. Too bad our forest industries don’t see their future differently as well. We are held hostage to our own indifference.

Speaking of the provincial government, the premier was in Northern Ontario recently to announce the province’s Northern Prosperity Plan. I’m trying desperately to see the silver linings. I don’t know three northerners who want us to succeed more than David Ramsey, Michael Gravelle and Rick Bartolucci. I wasn’t able to attend the announcement so I am relying on the ministries’ press releases to ascertain where we are going. Some thoughts:

A) Development councils. This is politics. Every government does it. Keeps the faithful involved and allows for photo ops. Seldom translates into any real action.

B) Northern highways program. At best an extremely modest improvement in funding. At worst smoke and mirrors. You never really know what gets spent. Just ask the people with Hepatitis C in this province about funding announcements. These programs are best assessed a year later when you see what has actually been spent.

C) Northern film and television industry. This is real money. It has created work and possibilities It was high risk and those involved deserve credit for
taking chances and, so far, looking smart.

D) Northern Ontario School of Medicine. This is a hugely important project for Northern Ontario and the government deserves credit for continuing to support it.

E) Grow bonds. This has potential, although I have no idea how it works. What matters is whether development capital can be extended to businesses that otherwise would not get it. I don’t know who or how those decisions will be made and it seems to overlap in purpose with the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, which is apparently getting back in the business of supporting individual businesses with financing of one kind or another. It also supplicates FedNor’s Community Futures infrastructure. We’ll have to wait and see.

F) Northern Ontario Heritage Fund. Well, who knows?

What matters is the quality of the specific decisions that are being made. Often these investments can be fairly dubious. On the other hand, strategic investments in infrastructure can really make a difference. This file needs to be assessed on the wisdom of its use of cash and that can vary widely from year to year. First indication will be the quality of new board appointees.

G) Ontario Mineral Industry Cluster Council. This is an important initiative. If the cluster council can do one thing, which is bring a centre of mining excellence to Laurentian University some time in the next few years, it shall have more than served its purpose. The time is now to build on the fantastic momentum in the mining business to create one of the most important mining solution centres in the world. At some point that policy is going to flow through, around, or begin with this group.

H) Go North investor program. I’ve read the press release. I don’t know what it is going to do.

It looks like some kind of marketing swat team for the North, but it is pretty vague with its mandate. We’ll have to wait and see.

What is missing is perspective. It is a patchwork directed at symptoms and not causes. In that regard these plans are not unwelcome, but are unremarkable. It will be up to northerners to push and shove this stuff into something more relevant or it will be same old, same old when we look back five or 10 years from now.

Miracles do happen. Let’s hope.

Michael Atkins is the president of Northern Ontario Business. He can be reached