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Closure of sawmill has community looking for answers

Sioux Lookout Mayor Dennis Leney is asked what future job prospects there are that will keep working families and young people in his northwestern Ontario community.
The closure of McKenzie Forest Products in Hudson has been devastating to jobs and the tax base in Sioux Lookout.

Sioux Lookout Mayor Dennis Leney is asked what future job prospects there are that will keep working families and young people in his northwestern Ontario community.

He rubs his face and squints out his office window into the misty gloom of an unseasonably cold and wet June morning to search for an answer.

“I want my sawmill back,” Leney half-heartedly chuckles about the closed McKenzie Forest Products. The often-troubled Buchanan sawmill eight kilometres away in the village of Hudson is now under bankruptcy protection.

The mill was left without Crown fibre after its allocation was assigned elsewhere in the provincial wood supply competition. That scuttled a plan to start up a pellet mill that would have created 80 new jobs.

Now it's headscratching time to figure out how to replace more than 200 mill jobs from the community's largest private employer.

Located 70 kilometres off the Trans-Canada Highway, Sioux Lookout has always been a service hub for tourist outfitters and for 29 First Nation communities in Ontario's Far North.

But the crash of the U.S. housing market and the resulting dropoff in demand for dimensional lumber has robbed the community of an estimated 1,400 forestry jobs lost in the immediate area over the last five years.

With no industrial tax base to lean on, Leney and council are desparately brainstorming for development ideas.

“I can't think of any other industry that we can bring in that will work.”

Elected last fall after Mayor Kathy Poling quit politics, the retired OPP sergeant has shaken things up in the municipality, making it clear he's not in favour of projects that don't produce jobs and wealth.

Construction delays in finishing a youth and arts cultural centre at the former Sioux Hotel as part of an overall $8 million downtown revitalization effort has Leney “very, very worried” about the final pricetag.

And he's not thrilled with planned renovations to the historic CN train station across Front Street, believing it will cost more money than the municipality can afford.

With an aging population on fixed incomes, one of Leney's priorities is petitioning the politicians to fund 60 extended care beds attached to the new hospital.

Last year, the town cut the ribbon on the Meno Ya Win Health Centre, a fully-equipped 63-bed facility, but Leney said the economic spinoffs are minimal since an adjoining 100-bed hostel takes away business from local hotels.

If there's one asset to build on, it's the Sioux Lookout Municipal Airport.

The airport is one of the busiest in Ontario with a 2010 traffic volume of 123,920 flights.

With 10 tenants on site, including aviation maintenance outfits and charter companies, the airport has 60 acres of land it is looking to offer for commercial and light industrial opportunities.

The airport is installing a new LPV (Localizer Performance with Vertical Guidance) approach system. Airport manager Todd Tripp was able to land the system, free of charge, after a year of negotations with NAV CANADA.

“It's improved our ability to have aircraft in lower limits. They can come in when the weather's poor.”

Tripp is hopeful this safety enhancement will lure a third carrier to the facility. Sioux Lookout is already serviced by Bearskin and Wasaya.

Across Highway 516 from the airport is Bigwood Lake, a prime piece of municipal waterfront land.

Leney wants to hold off on previous development plans for a future lakeside hotel, conference centre and mall. Not if it's going to poach overnight stays, spending and labour away from existing businesses.

Leney believes that property holds more potential as a post-secondary training centre to supply skilled trades for the emerging Ring of Fire mining camp in the James Bay lowlands and hopes to talk to Confederation College officials about it.

Council is also entertaining the thought of becoming a host community to store Ontario's nuclear waste, a highly sensitive and long-term project that is likely a decade out. Leney said it may be a long shot since a number of the other communities in Ontario and Manitoba are vying for it, including Ignace, Ear Falls and Schreiber.

“I think we have to look at it,” said Leney, who attended a meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in Halifax in early June and heard nothing but good things from a Swedish lecturer about the safety and security of these deep repositories in Europe.

“They've never had a problem and I cannot see why, with the economic problems we have in Sioux Lookout, that we can't at least investigate it.”