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Communities on the Move: Greenstone set to thrive with gold mine construction

Northwestern municipality looks to sync up with the supply chain economy for local gold mine and the Ring of Fire

Gold stands to bring Greenstone back in a big way.

Four kilometres south of the community of Geraldton at the intersection of Highways 11 and 584, construction is underway to breathe life back into a former gold mining property. It stands to be transformative for this largely rural municipality in northwestern Ontario, 275 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.

Since a groundbreaking ceremony last October, Greenstone Gold Mines, a joint venture between Equinox Gold and Orion Mine Finance, has been clearing trees and blasting rock to dig an open-pit mine on the site of the historic Macleod-Cockshutt Mine.

For the last year, the property has been a flurry of activity with cranes, drills, excavators, skidders, bulldozers and 240-ton heavy haul trucks as some 650 workers are now on the property as preparations began to carve out the starter pit.

“The Geraldton ward is buzzing and moving,” said outgoing Greenstone Mayor Renald Beaulieu.

With the first gold pour slated for the first half of 2024, the mine will deliver a much-needed economic boost to a region that's experienced the highs and lows of resource development over the decades.

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When Beaulieu became mayor in 2010, the area’s forest industry was undergoing a downturn and the area’s economy was stagnating.

“We were a boom town at one time, this whole area,” Beaulieu recalls. There were two sawmills in Longlac, where he was once mayor, and U.S. tissue manufacturer Kimberly-Clark employed 1,000 in the area.

Forestry still remains a key industrial sector but not on the scale it once was.

The development of the Greenstone Mine has been about 15 years in the making ever since Premier Gold, a junior mining company out of Thunder Bay, began poking around the Macleod-Cockshutt mine looking to find more gold.

Gold mining had taken place in Geraldton beginning beginning in the 1930s with three underground mines —Hardrock, Macleod-Cockshutt and Mosher — which collectively produced more than two million ounces between 1930 and 1970.

These older mining camps are always favourite places to re-explore with new technology and techniques to gauge if there’s an untapped mineral potential left over.

Premier Gold began assembling the land package in 2008, then called the Hardrock Project, began drilling and published a resource estimate. Then momentum began to stall.

Premier entered into an ill-fated business relationship with Centerra Gold that brought things to a standstill at one point. The project was revived in 2020 when Premier and Centerra cashed out and sold their respective project stakes to Equinox Gold and Orion Mine Finance, which formed the current day 60-40 joint venture.

“It’s all about patience,” said Beaulieu.

Today, the $1.5-billion project will provide an estimated 1,800 construction jobs and more than 500 mining-related jobs over a 15-year mine life, producing 5.5 million ounces of gold with the potential to find more gold in the area.

There’s a need for construction workers, heavy equipment operators, truck drivers, crane operators, welders and millwrights during both the construction and mine operating phases. 

The development stands to be a boon for local businesses and industrial suppliers and will likely draw more companies into the area to set up shop.

After 12 years as mayor, Beaulieu is hopping on that procurement bandwagon. The construction of the mine is his political swansong.

In the charter bus business for 40 years, he and his son have some transportation-related contracts with the mine to fulfill.

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Clearing the site for the mine involved brushing out trees, blasting rock and realigning the Highway 11-584 intersection.

To make room for the pit, processing plant and other supporting infrastructure, more than 60 residential properties were purchased by the mining company as well as the local OPP detachment, a Ministry of Transportation patrol yard, a Hydro One electric substation and operation centre for Geraldton, and a portion of the local golf course.

“It’s not just an ordinary project,” Beaulieu said. “It’s not out in the boondocks. We were displacing the community.”

Yet there have been few signs of NIMBYism, said Beaulieu, who praised local residents who bought into the vision of the mine as reviving the local economy.

“People really cooperated with the municipality to help this project move along,” he said.

There’s been some grumbling on social media over the dismantling of the Macleod-Cockshutt mine headframe, a Highway 11 fixture, and now suddenly escalating home prices, but Beaulieu said the feeling in the community is overwhelmingly optimistic.

“Our people of Greenstone have been fantastic. The odd person is upset about the price of housing going up, but at the end of the day, do you want jobs?”

To better prepare the municipality and businesses of what’s to come, Beaulieu said they invited a representative from the Fort McMurray (AB) Chamber of Commerce for a “tabletop discussion” on how to take advantage of the economic spinoffs and procurement needs from the mine.

Longer term, there are opportunities to be had as a service and supply centre from any future Ring of Fire mining projects, hundreds of kilometres to the north. Greenstone is the closest municipality to those deposits and would be southern terminus of a proposed Ring of Fire Road near the village of Nakina.

The opening of a mine usually presents a boon to local and new industrial suppliers and a demand for industrial, commercial and residential properties.

Beaulieu said Greenstone has plenty of surplus land left over from the forestry boom days and an inventory of lots in Geraldton and the nearby communities of Nakina, Longlac and Caramet, all within a 20- to 30-minute driving distance of the mine.

The municipality is taking a cautious approach to building out too quickly. With $266 million in municipal assets to manage and a small tax base, Beaulieu said the next mayor and council must be prudent on lot and infrastructure servicing until the mine actually nears commercial production.

Same goes for the housing situation. Since the start of mine construction, home prices have tripled. Homes sell quickly. Finding a 1,000-square-foot home is definitely an obstacle, Beaulieu said.

The mining company has set up a 600-person temporary bulkhouse facility in Geraldton, but Beaulieu would prefer to see new private investment in community housing. 

There have been some inquiries from developers about apartment buildings but nothing concrete. Some accommodations remaining from the Kimberly-Clark era need sprucing up and there’s plenty of potential to create waterfront lots within minutes of Geraldton. With limited taxpayer funding available, the municipality is encouraging developers and contractors to come to town to meet the need. 

Then there’s the chronic skilled labour crunch, some of which might be alleviated by sourcing and developing a homegrown pipeline of talent, stemming from impact benefit agreements signed between Greenstone Gold Mines and local First Nations.

Government dollars have flowed into the area to allow three collaborating First Nations to create a training program that prepares Indigenous people to participate in the mine’s construction and operation. 

“Their support is why the project moved quickly in the last few years,” said Beaulieu.