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Communities on the Move: Home builders wanted in Wawa

Resurgent gold mining and forestry activity holds promise and provides growth pressure for north shore community

When Maury O'Neill was hired by the Township of Wawa in 1990, there were seven operating gold mines in the area.

As the community's new housing coordinator, her job was to find lodgings for the influx of workers, including many employed at the Citadel gold mine on the outskirts of town.

Today, O'Neill finds herself in familiar territory as the current CAO and economic development officer for the town of 2,700 situated between the northeast shore of Lake Superior and Wawa Lake.

The mining industry is back with a flurry, and it's full-time scrambling for town officials to plan and find suitable housing to help recruit miners and mill workers but also attract families.

Up the road 45 minutes away, outside Dubreuilville, the prolific Island Gold Mine got the green light from its parent company, Alamos Gold, to expand the high-grade underground operation for the third time. Across the property boundary, Argonaut Gold is reviving the former underground Magino Mine, carving it out and putting it into production as an open pit.

And the mineralized archean rocks of the Michipicoten greenstone may produce a few more mines with a slew of junior mining companies drilling off ground in the historic gold camp.

The area’s dormant forest sector has come alive. The Cossette family of Montreal-based Forex acquired a mothballed oriented strand board plant, 25 kilometres outside town, with big plans to resurrect the operation, delivering the promise of 140 jobs.

"I've got this housing crisis," summed up the affable O'Neill, perhaps echoing a refrain from 30 years ago. "These announcements are beautiful."

Located 230 kilometres north of Sault Ste. Marie, Wawa sprang from the bush at the turn of the last century with the discovery of both gold and iron ore in the late 1800s, supplemented by a robust logging industry. 

The gold rush days petered out but the iron found inside a mountain fed the blast furnaces at Algoma Steel for generations until the Sault Ste. Marie steelmaker finally pulled the plug on its Algoma Ore Division, the town's principal employer, in 1998. 

The nearby Weyerhaeuser oriented strandboard mill outside town closed in 2007 and those skilled workers who remained behind — about 75 to 100 people —made the long commute up the Trans-Canada Highway to the Wesdome Gold Mine. 

The community economically struggled for the next decade, enduring an exodus of people and retail business, until gold prices improved enough for exploration companies to trickle back into the area, equipped with new theories on where to find new deposits. 

Wawa has always been a regional service hub with government offices, school boards, retail and a hospital. 

Even as Dubreuilville gears up to host a second mine, O'Neill is hopeful Wawa can capture 10 per cent of the workforce spillover from the expanded mining and forest mill activity, maybe 150 families, to serve as a bedroom community to its smaller neighbour to the north.

"But we won't be able to attract any if we don't provide suitable accommodations," she said.

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There's an across-the-board need for a mix of new housing, particularly single-family dwellings, and O'Neill putting out the cattle call for developers to come to town.

The community's housing stock is definitely aging.

O'Neill jokes there’s the "old" section of town with small homes dating back to the 1940s and '50s, and the "new" part with the second wave of home building spanning the 1970s to '80s.

What little inventory is available hardly meets the needs and tastes of families of company executives and managers coming from larger centres, she said. Still, what hits the market usually doesn't last long.

"Our housing vacancy rate is zero, both for apartments and homes," she said. "As soon as a house is put up for sale, it's gone within hours... often above asking price."

Data from MLS listings show average home prices in the Wawa market have jumped from $180,083 in the spring of 2020 to $281,933 this year. One talk-of-the-town item from last summer had one waterfront home overlooking Wawa Lake selling for a staggering-for-these-parts price of $650,000.

Multi-residential units of all kinds are also in demand. Often times, long-term contractors and transient shift workers will pool their money to buy homes.

"We need rental units, immediately," O'Neill said.

Additional social housing is also on the agenda, similar to the 40-unit not-for-profit townhouse project she steered back in the early 1990s.

Physically, there’s room to grow. Wawa has the water and sewer infrastructure capacity to accommodate 5,000 to 6,000 people and 100 lots ready to develop.

If there’s one housing trend Wawa wants to avoid is the bunkhouse-style lodgings familiar to mining-dependant towns, O'Neill said.

The township council made some exceptions in recent years to permit a temporary 150-person modular camp for crews associated with the East-West Tie powerline project, and again for a gold exploration outfit working near the airport.

"It's not how the community wants to develop," O'Neill said. "We see it as a short-term solution."

Wawa doesn't only need housing; it needs people.

The steady erosion of people who've left the area over the years has left many positions unfilled in the education, health-care and service sectors.

In a reflection of Wawa’s labour situation, the business hours of the popular Tim Hortons are restricted from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.

"If you come to Wawa, I can't take you out to dinner on a Monday night because none of the restaurants are open," said O'Neill. 

Immigration figures heavily into their strategy to attract labour to town, O’Neill said, but some out-of-town entrepreneurs have shown faith in Wawa’s future and have invested in revitalizing some dilapidated hotel properties.

Places like Wawa are not immune to the volatility of mineral commodity prices. In learning from their history of repeated boom-and-bust cycles in the resource sector, O’Neill explained it’s about “finding a balance” in planning for the near and long-term future.

While Wawa’s housing stock can definitely use an upgrade, O'Neill said overexpanding by approving a multitude of new homes for the market does no good when the resource economy crashes and the town is left with many vacancies.

"You want to accommodate the growth, but we certainly are aware of the need to balance what the growth pressures are on the community with what the community can afford and sustain in the long term."