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Communities on the Move: Marathon goes in depth on Lake Superior port plans

Former Marathon Pulp property developing into north shore’s town’s new economic anchor

Marathon’s ship will come in some time in 2024.

The north shore town of 3,100 is putting the plans and people in place to revive its historic harbour and a waterfront brownfield property to cater to a booming mining sector in northwestern Ontario.

The site of the former Marathon Pulp, now cleaned up and ready for development, is poised to become the only commercial dock serving a wide expanse of the north shore of Lake Superior between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay.

“We do expect we’ll see the first ship in 2024,” said Daryl Skworchinski, the Town of Marathon’s CAO.

“There’s no question we’re going to be operational next year in some form or fashion, and build it out from there.”

Almost reminiscent of the Hemlo gold mining boom days of the 1980s when Marathon’s population swelled to nearly 6,000, mining is once again sparking the local economy.

Just 10 kilometres north of town, Generation Mining is moving toward making a final construction decision on digging an open-pit palladium and copper mine.

As with any large industry, there’s a multitude of business and community spinoff opportunities to be had, including on the logistics front.

Mine development could start as soon as this spring. Skworchinski said that coincides well with their 2024 port plans, along with the development of a new waterfront community centre, a 105-lot residential subdivision that’s on the books, and new multi-residential units.

Marathon formed a port authority last year with neighbouring Biigtigong Nishnaabeg and is in discussions with QSL Group to have the Quebec company handle port operations for them. QSL is one of the marine industry’s biggest logistic service companies. They run the Port of Montreal.

“They’re the right group for our operation here in Marathon based on their experience,” said Skworchinski.

QSL is currently taking inventory of Marathon’s 557-foot wharf and the 90 acres of waterfront land in preparing a five-year business plan that will recommend any upgrades needed.

When assessing the opportunities to be had, Skworchinski said, based on their preliminary research and discussions with large Canadian port operators, the Marathon site could be a going concern, employing 100 to 125 people, handling cargo, working in warehousing, driving trucks and plows, and filling administration jobs.

“It’s been an eye-opening experience to see how busy ports are,” he said. 

“There’s lot of employment associated with very active ports.”

The property is the site of the former Marathon Pulp mill, which went bankrupt and out of business in 2009, throwing 240 people out of work.

Left in its wake was a toxic environmental hotspot requiring extensive remediation of the site and the bottom of Peninsula Harbour.

An ongoing monitoring program still exists, but Skworchinski said those problems appear to be in the rearview mirror.

“There’s been no red flags,” said Skworchinski. “No concerns whatsoever from an environmental or chemical perspective of historic use on site. It’s zoned heavy industrial and is completely developable.”

Except for a pumphouse, no structures from the mill days are still standing, though the building slabs remain. The wharf remains in great shape, he said.

By luck, Skworchinski said, he stumbled across the original engineering and construction blueprints dating back to the late 1930s. The structure was certainly built to last.

“The amount of rebar in there is unreal.”

Based on that, engineers can determine its load-bearing capacity for cargoes and cranes. The structure, he said, can currently handle a 62.5-tonne vehicle.

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The property remains “completely serviced,” he said, with town water and sewer, fibre optics, three-phase hydro close at hand, and a permit to draw water from the lake.

Draft at the wharf is 27 feet, deep enough to accommodate Great Lakes vessels. Not far from the dock, the water depth drops off rapidly to 100 feet in the harbour.

To take advantage of that, Skworchinski said they are considering their options with their consultants to either dredge or install a portable docking system of barges that extends into deeper water.

What upgrades they’ll add will depend on the QSL report. Adding warehousing is a distinct possibility and maybe shoreside cranes. Down the road they may opt to create industrial park lots to invite in tenants engaged in wood products.

Being situated only a short two-kilometre haul from the dock to the Trans-Canada Highway, and with CP’s main line close by, Skworchinski said even without adding any extras, the port lands are basically functional.

“We’re operational right now without doing a lot of work.”

Almost as a trial last summer, the site was used as a staging area to barge building materials over to Biigtigong Nishnaabeg for construction of a cultural centre and a water treatment plant.

As to what marine cargoes Marathon could initially chase, the most obvious would be road salt and aggregate, but Skworchinski said they’re looking to handle big pieces of equipment, like a ball mill for a mining operation.

“At this point, our focus is on larger ticket items,” he said, particularly in the mining, forestry and logistics spaces.

Aside from Generation Mining, there are the potential for other mines in the area. Barrick Gold, he said, is talking about a pit expansion at Hemlo. And service companies are inquiring with the town office about using marine transport to ship product and equipment related to these large development contracts.

Marathon might face some competition from Red Rock, to the west, where the BMI Group and Red Rock Indian Band are rehabilitating a former waterfront mill property. As part of a flashy community visioning exercise, the development partners intend to establish a commercial dock of their own and possibly host a lithium refinery. 

Skworchinki said they’re opting for a low-key approach in managing expectations until they can demonstrate they can handle and move cargo.

“We’re being very deliberate about how we’re going to operate the port and services.”

Skworchinski estimates it’ll take between $1 million and $1.5 million to fund the hiring of port authority support staff, a general manager, and secure the third-party operator.

They might need some government seed money at startup, but he said once the first cargoes start arriving, it’s hoped they’ll generate the cash flow to reinvest back into port infrastructure to become a self-sustaining operation.