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Diversification cornerstone of future growth (12/03)

Rather than wait for the axe to drop, the Town of Espanola has surveyed the northern landscape to gain a greater understanding of what becomes of one-industry towns that have grown too reliant on a major company to be the town’s major breadwinner.

Rather than wait for the axe to drop, the Town of Espanola has surveyed the northern landscape to gain a greater understanding of what becomes of one-industry towns that have grown too reliant on a major company to be the town’s major breadwinner.

Residents in Espanola, known as a fairly affluent and economically stable community, had been resistant to change until major upheavals in the forest sector resulted in mill closures in many communities across Northern Ontario.

With no other source of major manufacturing to lean on, attitudes have gradually changed, and Espanola residents have grown anxious for economic diversification and job creation, and want to see secondary industry attracted to the town.

For years, Espanola, with a population of 5,449, has served as a regional centre, situated at a sort of crossroads on Highway 6 running south to Manitoulin Island and near Highway 17 between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie. As a gateway to the island, it has attracted more than its share of retail growth in recent years by attracting brand name franchise stores and fast-food outlets. Expanding on that sector, in an effort to be positioned as the commercial-retail service hub on what’s known as the Manitoulin-LaCloche area, is one of the premises of Espanola’s two-year-old economic development strategy.

“Anybody coming off Manitoulin has to go through our community,” says Eleethea Marson, Espanola’s community economic development officer. “We’re centrally located. It’s a half-hour drive to Manitoulin Island, half-hour to Sauble-Spanish River and 20 minutes to Nairn Centre,” representing a catchment area of about 40,000 inhabitants.

Like many other northern communities, the town faces challenges with youth out-migration and proximity to market, but observationally, they are finding real economic growth in small, home-based business.

As part of their efforts to grow residential, industrial, tourism and retail-commercial development, community leaders have adopted a business retention and expansion program as part of their new strategic plan.

One of the recommendations from that program was taking advantage of legislative changes in the provincial Municipal Act to encourage small-business growth by allowing businesses to be registered, free of charge, instead of the fee structure of licensing.

Based on survey feedback during the strategic plan process, the town opted to begin the process of accessing funding to hire a business development officer.

Though their research indicates most job creation comes from existing business, Espanola is also looking to attract outside companies by marketing the town through tradeshows and trade publications to extract promising investment leads.

One priority item is developing greenfield industrial space. As part of their business attraction strategy, land negotiations are ongoing to set aside about 100 acres in the community’s south end as a light industrial park for value-added wood products, preferably complementary to Domtar’s operation. But Marson says the town is receptive to any kind of incoming manufacturing, warehouse depot or distribution operation.

“We’re fairly open,” Marson says.

“Domtar has been an excellent resource in terms of developing our strategy...they’re very community-minded and support what the town’s been doing.”

With an environmental assessment completed, town officials are awaiting a final engineering report for the park and costs for the property, which sits behind some existing industrial space on McCullough Street. They are hopeful of a spring groundbreaking to begin laying water and sewer infrastructure.

“We have two letters of intent from businesses (one local, one within the region) looking to locate in the park, so it is really favourable for moving forward.”

In taking stock of their community over the last two years, Espanola has also sought to spruce up its image dominated physically and pungently by Domtar Inc.

“We did recognize two years ago that we had an external image problem,” says Marson. “I mean there are lots of pulp and paper mills in Northern Ontario, but for whatever reason we have been tagged the stinky town.

“Really we don’t,” she playfully reminds everyone. “We’ve changed our bleaching process. What we’ve tried to do is not embrace the smell, but embrace the fact the mill is here and that it does have a significant impact on our community and we developed a corporate branding around it.”

Instead of fighting the image of the mill that dominates the town’s skyline, Espanola unveiled a new corporate logo with a stylized ‘E’ and slogan - A Fine Paper Town - and has been creating marketing tools, a community profile, tourism brochures and a tradeshow booth featuring the new look. Marson believes the image is starting to grow on townsfolk.

Tourism represents future growth potential, Marson says. Already blessed with an abundance of snowmobile trails in the Manitoulin-LaCloche area and sport fishing on the Spanish River, the landscape provides “huge opportunities” for packaging and developing ecotourism products, Marson says. Town staff is examining various opportunities, and working with neighbouring communities, including Sauble-Spanish, Nairn Centre and Baldwin to build an information centre.

The community has seen some public investment with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care spending $2.4 million through the province’s Superbuild program towards the addition of 32 long-term care beds at Espanola General Hospital. The project, expected to be complete by March 2004, should create about 20 full-time jobs.

The Northern Ontario Heritage Fund contributed a total of $619,575 to the town this year to reconstruct Tudhope Street, a main artery, and to make upgrades to the municipal water system and enable the library and recreation complex to be handicapped accessible.

The water treatment plant will be upgraded with $67,000 earmarked by Industry Canada and Superbuild for post-chlorination and standby chemical feed systems.

On the retail front, Giant Tiger is relocating, expanding the business, and is currently constructing a larger store on Highway 6 in Espanola.