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Sioux Lookout prepares ground to attract health-care providers

Northwestern Ontario town creates commercial subdivision to grow health and wellness services

Sioux Lookout is out to kickstart commercial development.

The northwestern Ontario municipality is looking to attract business and investment to town by selling municipally owned lots in a new subdivision.

Dubbed the Hillcrest Hub, the aim of this planned development is to entice more health and wellness services to town, an identified priority in the community of 5,800.

“This is kind of unheard of," said Jen Esposito, Sioux Lookout’s economic development officer. “This isn’t something that has been available, for developers to have shovel-ready lots that are connected.”

The town has had difficulty luring builders to develop parcels of land. Ground conditions are a factor and what serviced land is available is small and “few and far between.”

The vacant 19.6-acre lot is centrally located in town, just north of Hillcrest Drive. 

There’s been “pretty significant interest” in that land for a number of years, she said.

Some of the businesses they would like to see established there are a pharmacy, medical devices, home health care, a fitness and wellness retailer, a dentist and alternative medicine practitioner, among others.

Sioux Lookout has always been a health-care, administrative and essential services hub for 30 First Nations in the region. 

“Over the course of COVID, it’s really the growth of our social and health services that has been driving the economy and creating change in the community," said Esposito.

For instance, the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority purchased a local hotel during the pandemic for conversion into a hostel to meet the accommodation needs of the nearly 400 patients that arrive in town daily to access health services.   

The employment base in these organizations is growing and there’s been a gap in providing offerings like massage therapy and chiropractic services, Esposito said.

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While the retail and commercial scene is thriving with new shopping and fast-food outlets, a grocery store expansion, and a new Motel 6 in the works, Sioux Lookout is playing catch-up in supporting the health and wellness sector. This kind of infrastructure will do that.

Water and sewer infrastructure is being installed on the property with lots expected to be ready for development this summer. A shared parking lot will be laid down and maintained by the municipality.

The municipality pocketed just under $2 million combined from FedNor and Northern Ontario Heritage Fund to extend infrastructure onto the property prior to the pandemic.

Sioux Lookout is not merely putting out the For Sale sign and waiting for developers to turn up. There’s a process in place.

According to the development guide, the deadline for the first proposals is April 19. A development committee will review the applications in May and be passed on to council for approval in June, with purchase agreements issued in July. Construction is slated to begin by August.

Their intention, said Esposito, is to be totally transparent with developers and remove any uncertainties of what the municipality expects.

“We’re hoping, overall, this will make the negotiation process go more smoothly by dividing it into a clear process so everybody’s on the same page.”

Whether there will be a rush on lots this year remains to be seen, she said, “but I think we’re going see some development get started this year, for sure.”

The town is also hoping Hillcrest will tackle some of its housing issues, which hasn’t kept pace with growth.

“We are suffering from a severe housing shortage,” said Esposito.

Sioux Lookout is a bit of an outlier in Northern Ontario. The community has seen a 15 per cent jump in population over the last decade, admittedly “unusual” for small towns in this region, said Esposito

Council, very recently, proposed an amendment to the bylaw for Hillcrest that will allow for residential units within the commercial lots, in the form of secondary apartments, to create a mixed-use development.

It's resonated with some medical providers, said Esposito.

“That’s of great interest to them. Maybe they can house their employees or could have apartments available for short-term accommodations that could offset development costs and for locums during a vacation period.”

Esposito said the development package has been distributed to prospective developers and investors, and it’s available for interested parties to download from the Available Lands page on the municipality’s website.