Sturgeon Falls was like many one-industry towns along the Trans-Canada Highway.
The local economy was precariously tied to the cyclical nature of the forest products industry corporate giant.
Reality struck in the winter of 2002-2003 when the town was caught in a wave of mill closures across Northern Ontario. Weyerhaeuser announced it was closing the containerboard plant, putting 140 employees out of work and the community into a state of shock.
The loss of the mill wasn’t the death knell for the town and the surrounding rural area. Saved by its northeastern Ontario geography, the area has become a bedroom community for nearby North Bay and Sudbury.
Local realtor Mike Page began noticing an influx of new homebuyers about five years ago.
People looking to escape the surging prices of those two expanding mining and service towns began buying homes in Sturgeon Falls and the surrounding organized and unorganized townships of West Nipissing.
“We had a retired couple from Sudbury just move into the community and alot of people are coming in with no connection to the town whatsoever," said Page.
Real estate is booming with more than 70 home starts annually in West Nipissing, not just in Sturgeon Falls, but the smaller communities of Verner and Lavigne.
By early December, local realtors sold 101 homes this year, including 16 new construction starts, in Sturgeon Falls alone.
People attracted by reasonably priced homes, a lower tax rate and and laid back lifestyle of small town and rural living has resulted in a home construction frenzy.
First, it was individual homes that began selling. Recently, subdivision sales have been very strong, said Page.
New homes that were selling for $110,000 in 2005 are ranging between $150,000 and $180,000.
He works with Denmar Construction on the 56-lot Demers subdivision in the town’s south end. They started building three years ago. “There are four lots I don’t have a house under construction, which is phenomenal for our area.”
A brand new single detached, three-bedroom home of 1,040 square feet starts at $159,900. With a garage its $180,000.
Desirable waterfront lots on Lake Nipissing and some of the inland lakes like Deer, Tomiko, Clear and along the Sturgeon River are long gone. Even large tracts of farmland are popular. Though severances aren’t allowed in West Nipissing, that hasn’t stopped retirement-aged Torontonians and 905’ers from snapping them up.
“Even (homes) that would have historically been inexpensive, we’ve seen stuff sell in upwards of $200,000 which is just mind-boggling considering they sold for $80,000 a couple of years prior,” said Page.
Home construction appears to have momentum into 2009. At the end of November, the municipality had issued 79 permits for the year worth $11.5 million. Last year, $12.4 million worth of home-building permits were issued.
Despite the loss of the mill, there was never a mass exodus of workers and families. In the last census, West Nipissing’s population even inched up by 2.5 per cent.
Many older mill employees had taken early retirement. Others kept their homes and took their trade skills to jobs in Sudbury and North Bay. Quite a few of its 13,500 residents are now commuting on Highway 17 to jobs 20 minutes away in North Bay or to Sudbury, 80 kilometres west.
One big manufacturing boost was announced last summer when Pennsylvania mining supplier Jennmar Corp. selected Sturgeon Falls as the site of its Canadian expansion.
The maker of ground support products, like mechanical rock bolts and rebar, has plans to employ 150 people at two 60,000-square foot shops.
With 18 employees, they are working out of a temporary shop on a 20-acre site where a fully-automated plant will begin construction this spring. A resin plant will follow in a year and half.
Despite the mineral commodity slump, it’s full steam ahead, said Jennmar Canada managing director Marc Lamothe. “All our plans are well laid out,” said the company began training a second shift in December.
Lamothe said after scoping out industrial properties in Sudbury and North Bay, Sturgeon Falls provided all the ingredients: a large tract of land next to the highway with rail access provided by the Ottawa Valley Railway.
“We got to Sturgeon and it was open arms,” said Lamothe of the reception by community leaders.
Local businessman Denis Toulouse, sold them a piece of highway property on the town’s western fringes which accelerated plans for an industrial park on the site.
Water, sewer and electrical connections are going in this winter, followed by a rail spur with funding help from West Nipissing and senior government funders.
“What was inspiring was the different organizations that came together,” said West Nipissing CAO Jay Barbeau. “It showed was that a small community like West Nip could put the pieces of the puzzle together for a fairly significant player.”
The company supplies two customers, FNX Mines in Sudbury and Goldcorp at Red Lake. Lamothe said they’ll hold off on hiring until the new plant is running and they are ready to expand.
“We will grow and hire employees as we get contracts. If we don’t have them, we’ll just keep the ones we have.”
Despite production cuts at two FNX Sudbury mines and layoffs of half its workforce, Lamothe said the mid-tier miner plans to continue development work at its Podolsky project.
West Nipissing Community Services Director Marc Gagnon said by landing Jennmar and a smaller mining-related company, Ranger Survey Systems, they hope to create a mining supply sector.
North of town, there’s exploration in Field and River Valley where miners like Pacific North West Capital have sunk more than $20 million in drilling for platinum group metals.
A quiet hub of activity is in telecommunications where a 300-seat call centre on the top floor of city hall performs survey work for Stats Canada. To build on that, Gagnon is working to attract a potential back-office IT client.
Six years after the Weyerhaeuser closure, Page said the townfolk are upbeat.
The full business spinoff of Jennmar’s presence hasn’t been felt yet, “but a building is up and they are making and shipping product every day.”
The animosity between the community and Weyerhaeuser, that resulted in a lawsuit and settlement with West Nipissing taking over a hydro-electric dam, appears to be subsiding.
The mill has been demolished and the piece of fenced-in highway property is now vacant. Weyerhaeuser said it is ready to listen to offers
Company spokesman Wayne Roznowski said they haven’t been approached by any interested parties and have not performed any site remediation until they hear a proposal for an intended use.
“Simply because we don’t know what anybody would want it for.”
Though not actively marketing the land, the company is willing to listen to offers and negotiate on what the property is worth, the cost to clean it up and determine if it’s worth selling, said Roznowski.
“If there’s people interested in talking to us we are certainly interested in entering discussions.”