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Communities on the Move: Mining brings the 'buzz' back to Marathon

North shore community sees new retail investment as town prepares to accommodate 400 to 500 mine workers
Town of Marathon (Supplied)

Daryl Skworchinski, the chief administrative officer of Marathon, said there’s been a “palpable buzz” in the community along the north shore of Lake Superior these past few months. 

New businesses popping up – as well as Generation Mining’s announcement that it was taking full control of its palladium and copper project – have injected a jolt of excitement into the local economy.

On December 8, the Toronto-based Generation reported it was acquiring Stillwater’s 16.5 per cent share in the operation, making it the sole shareholder.

That’s good news for the local economy, as the proposed mine is expected to bring between 400 and 500 new workers to town– and plenty of spinoff opportunities–  once it begins operation.

If government permits are granted in early 2022, an 18-month construction period for the open-pit mine will begin, presumably next fall. Commercial mining tentatively begins in late 2023 or early 2024.

“There's a couple of things recently that pointed to the project really picking up steam,” Skworchinski said. “One we saw locally was the expansion of the size of the Generation team on the ground.

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“When you're investing time and money and resources into people to move the project forward, you know, that's a positive thing, as opposed to seeing two or three caretakers working on the project.”

Another cause for excitement is the addition of two fast food franchises– Tim Hortons and Subway –  to the local fast food scene.

“When you see corporate franchises like that, when they move into your community, you know they've done their homework, they know what the future looks like from a numbers perspective, and they're confident in their business decisions,” Skworchinski said.

Neighbouring First Nation Biigtigong Nishnaabeg has also thrown its support behind Marathon, partnering up with the municipality on plans to develop the former Marathon Pulp mill site into a port authority on Lake Superior.

“We see the grand potential around a port authority from a logistics perspective,” Skworchinski said. “Not only supporting Generation and their ability to move products in and out via water, but, we've had conversations with forestry companies and there’s a lot of interest from the Greenstone Gold Project about utilizing Marathon.

“It really rounds out our economic development strategy and strengthens our partnership with our First Nation partner, which is also one of the things that we want to do moving forward.”

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The buzz reminds Skworchinski, who was born and raised in Marathon, of another boom time, and a similar sense of local optimism and momentum, during the Hemlo Gold Mines days of the 1980s.

”Marathon was going to be 10,000 people, but we never got there,” Skworchinski said. “But there's so much we learned through that process which I think we're applying now.”

Several people on council and others working in the municipality lived through the mid-80s boom, Skworchinski said, which lent their decision-making process some important context.

“We have that historical experience around our council and senior leadership table about wanting to ensure that we support the developments, but make sure we're taking full advantage of all the opportunities that come with it,” he said. 

“Especially the secondary business sector.”

The expected growth also brings with it some challenges, Skworchinski said, especially as the town gets set to welcome the new workers. 

“[Population growth] creates a challenge and an opportunity,” he said. “We have to increase our housing stock, so we'll see some new multi-residential development happening in the new year, with a couple of projects that should have shovels in the ground in January.”

Although details are still under wraps, the town is also entering into discussions with a developer/builder to bring between 25 to 50 new units between 2022-23. They’ve also fielded requests from different investors, including hotel operators. 

A second challenge, Skworchinski said, is on the human resources side. Currently, administrators have to contend with a limited number of people performing different roles at the municipal level. 

“Resources, energy and people. There's only so much of that to go around,” Skworchinski said. “Luckily, our administrative team has a lot of experience sitting in the chairs with these types of projects.”

They also take pride in how adept they’ve been at forming bonds with potential partners, Skworchinski said. 

“We use a very, I'll say, informal process, to look at these projects…we develop the relationships first and then when there's a point where there's an investment or a development, then we get into the legalities around structuring deals and things like that.”

In hopes of capitalizing on all the interest and likely investment in Marathon, Skworchinski is also planning to re-introduce to council a long-shelved plan to build a new 72,000 square-foot community centre – including a pool, active living centre and 1,000 seat arena– on the town’s southeastern end.

“We need these types of facilities,” he added. “Quality of life has always been a trademark of this council and investing in quality of life. 

Plans for the facility, he said, which began in 2015, included two public consultations. 

“It's a project we have on the books and council wants to see a realistic plan for administration in 2022 and how we can fund it.”

If successful, Skworchinski said, shovels could hit the ground in the “not too distant future.”

“I think it's fun to work on projects that are future-looking,” he said. “as opposed to managing things like pandemics that really seem to take all your energy away.” 

This article is one in a series focused on progressive Northern Ontario communities that are taking advantage of opportunities to position themselves for economic growth.