By Ian Ross
Once considered a military town and a major junction for three major railroads, North Bay has adjusted to changes in the economic landscape and today is billing itself as a regional hub for commerce, education and transportation in northeastern Ontario.
Unlike other one-industry northern towns, North Bay has achieved a measure of diversification, with many small- to medium-sized businesses of between 60 and 100 employees, says Mayor Jack Burrows.
“If one sector runs into difficulty it doesn’t impact on the total economy, which works to our advantage,” Burrows says. “We’re not as vulnerable to industry downturns.”
Though the mining sector employs about 1,200 and the industry has gone through some tough times lately, many mining equipment manufacturers are surviving by exporting their product and extending their expertise to offshore customers.
“There’s a bit of everything (here) and that really is a preferable place to be,” says Burrows.
In the last two years more than $113 million in building permits has been processed, and the value of new housing units has topped more than $55 million both in 2000 and 2001, the highest since 1991.
Burrows says North Bay’s real estate market remains “very hot” with homes in the medium-priced range - $125,000 and $175,000 - most difficult to find.
He attributes a strong housing market to the relocation of some new companies to North Bay.
TransCanada Pipeline moved its eastern Canadian construction headquarters to the city, bringing in about 30 families in the last year.
Union Gas relocated its dispatch and electronic programming headquarters to North Bay to service the region, adding about a dozen families.
Though the Canadian Forces’ and Norad’s (North American Aerospace Defence Command) presence near Jack Garland Airport has been dramatically downscaled in the last decade, one of the biggest infrastructural footprints left behind, aside from a 10,000-foot runway, is an overabundance of fibre optic capacity, the third-largest in Ontario behind Toronto and Ottawa.
The result has been the mushrooming of a fledgling telecommunications industry with 24 call centres and 2,200 jobs added in the last two years.
Burrows describes North Bay’s fibre optic network as their “trump card” to bring in new business and investigate some promising leads in the biotechnology field.
Canadore College professors Bill Procunier and Randy Moggach, who came from the biotech industry, will be representing the city at the world’s largest biotech symposium, BIO 2002, in Toronto this June.
“(Biotechnology) is a worldwide expanding sector,” says Ewen Cornick, Canadore’s vice-president of external relations and technical services. “What we’re trying to determine is if there is a role for North Bay to play in that game.”
Rick Evans, manager of the North Bay Economic Development Corp., says a number of local companies are engaged in environmental products and services, but with the expertise available at both Canadore and Nipissing University in pharmaceutical and bio-remediation areas, biotechnology “simply makes some sense for us.
“We’re in a good position to get out and seriously compete for those things now that we’ve got the academic expertise, that the college and university have, committed to the project, and they’ve established a great network of contacts in the industry.
“Our approach will be similar to the one when we went after call centre industry. We were the first city in the North to go after them aggressively.”
Another piece in the city’s development tool box is the steps taken to reduce industrial taxes.
Since providing bonuses is prohibited under provincial legislation, city hall introduced tax cuts last year and plans an eventual 66 per cent reduction in their industrial rates over the next three years, hoping to convince the province to match it with a reduction on the educational portion of the bill.
Burrows views that as a catalyst, not only to attract new business, but to encourage long-established companies to stay and grow.
“Retention is a major part of what we’re doing.”
Some of the early returns include a major 57,000-square-foot expansion at boat-builder Plastitech.
The eventual completion of the Highway 11 four-laning projection over the next two years should tremendously improve the transportation corridor to central and southern Ontario, Burrows adds.
“When that four-laning is finished you should be able to drive to Toronto easily in three hours,” says Burrows.
On the construction scene, site preparation work was underway in April for a new $225-million hospital project for the west end, north of Highway 17.
The new three-storey Northeast Regional Medical Centre will be linked by corridor to the proposed Northeastern Mental Health Centre.
Nipissing University’s new $12.7-million academic wing is expected to be completed by fall adding more office space, labs and lounges to handle the anticipated 500 to 600 students expected to arrive over the next five years.
Canadore’s $12.5-million aviation campus, opening this fall at Jack Garland Airport, will handle a 40 per cent increase in students enrolled in that program and fits in well with other development activity including the Air Base Development Corp.’s Aerospace Centre.
To handle the costs of building a new hospital and a water filtration plant, politicians agreed upon a 3.9 per cent hike in taxes as part of a 20-year program to pay down a city debt that had topped more than $30 million at one point.
“We’re forecasting a capital reduction in spending to get there and be completely free of debt,” Burrows says.