Do companies in northwestern Ontario really dig the idea of a mining cluster group?
That's the question being posed this fall to businesses and organizations engaged in the mining field.
The Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce is working with the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission, the Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund, and other organizations in opening a discussion on whether the northwest needs a version of Sudbury's already successful mining cluster model.
“We're in that preliminary stage to determine if there really is an interest,” said chamber president Charla Robinson.
A phone survey will be conducted and the chamber is sending a letter to relevant member companies to gauge interest and ask how an association should be structured.
The City of Thunder Bay and Thunder Bay Ventures, a federal community development group, released two mining-related studies this year suggesting the momentum is there and the timing is right to create such a group.
Ontario's mining service and supply sector is a $5.65-billion industry and employs 23,000 people.
Thunder Bay's share is 6.2 per cent and 7 per cent, respectively.
Moreover, the northwest has a stable of new mines expected to come online within a decade and communities like Thunder Bay are preparing to cater to the open-ended mineral potential of the Ring of Fire in the James Bay lowlands.
A survey in the Thunder Bay Ventures study indicated 60 per cent of respondents thought an association would be “beneficial” as a promotional vehicle for local companies, for networking and sales opportunities, and provide a central web presence for members.
The city's mining readiness strategy said it would aid in sharing knowledge, building relationships, promoting innovation, and enhance the profile of companies to be suppliers to the world.
The Sudbury Area Mining Supply and Service Association is one model that could be replicated, but Robinson said her members may have other ideas.
“We have no preconceived notions about what this could be, will be, how it will work and who's going to run it,” said Robinson, “we're just trying to do the information gathering part.”
The Thunder Bay Metal Fabricators Association (the former Oil Sands Consortium) represents a collection of pipe and metal fabricators, suppliers, and engineering firms that scope out and share information on new business opportunities in Western Canada.
They have a web presence, but there is no central office, only a handful of lead companies and contacts.
Geographical boundaries for a northwest supply group haven't been established, but that too is wide open for discussion.
“I think it's a real exciting opportunity to look at,” said Robinson. “I recall 10 years ago when the whole concept of clustering was the big talk, specifically forestry clustering. I think the time is right to have that conversation and hopefully we have enough time to figure how to make it work if there is an interest.”
While major miners like Osisko and Cliffs Natural Resources have stalled in their project developments and the financing market remains tough for exploration companies, Robinson said the slowdown offers some breathing room to do some prep work and put new tools in place to be ready when the industry rebounds.