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Marathon aiming to become retail hub for northwest (12/03)

There is a push to enhance Marathon’s economy, and residents are looking to council to point them in the right direction as mining and forestry companies threaten the viability of the town’s economy.

There is a push to enhance Marathon’s economy, and residents are looking to council to point them in the right direction as mining and forestry companies threaten the viability of the town’s economy.

Over the summer, the Marathon pulp shut down for two weeks and workers took either vacation time or banked time.

“From the signs I get everything seems to be status quo right now, but that could all change with a flip of a dime,” says Daryl Skworchinski, strategic development co-ordinator for Superior North Community Futures Development Corp.

In the mineral industry, Newmont Canada, one of the three mines working in the Hemlo gold vein, recently announced the laying off of 60 workers effective January 2004, which will have more of a direct effect on Manitouwadge than on Marathon.

The decision to reduce staff was a reflection of diminishing resources available to the mine, Doug Hock, spokesperson for Newmont states. The employees affected by the layoffs will be offered severance pay and outplacement counseling.

A mining plan announced last year called for layoffs to begin in 2004. However, because it is not economically feasible to keep the mine running at the same level, a newly revised plan was developed that included layoffs to begin by year-end 2003 with another similar sized lay off to be expected in 2005. The mine is slated to stay in production until 2006. Golden Giant currently employs 329 people with production amounts nearing 235,000 for 2003.

“These layoffs came earlier than expected,” Skworchinski explains.

Marathon’s retail sector is expected to feel the pinch, since many of the residents from other areas like Manitouwadge come to the town to shop.

“It will affect retail big time because we are talking about 60 people (being laid off) and that translates into 60 families, which translates again to approximately 300 people,” says Sandra Svenkeson, resident and owner of several businesses in Marathon.

She explains the town council has not prepared for the onset of layoffs, and that is a concern.

“They have not done anything. It is hard in a small town because you know all the councilors personally...but there has been nothing done here in six years,” says Svenkeson, co-owner of Marathon Harbour Inn, Prime Cut and Daon Construction.

Municipal leaders need to look at other opportunities to maintain the viability of the community, she explains.

“We just can’t rely on the mines and the mill anymore.”

Sharon Hacio, CAO of Marathon says, “There have been initiatives underway however perhaps not as fast as some people would like to see it happen.”

Marathon’s candidates for election based their platform on finding alternative ways to sustain the economy, she says.

Hacio says she is helping to pull together a taskforce on economic development.

Studies are already underway for the marina and will be finalized in the November time frame, she says, with the town officials approaching the project in small steps. Ultimately, it will attract more tourism to the community with possible spinoffs generated from water traffic.

Other initiatives will also help buoy the local economy. Hacio is looking to improve the town’s signage off the Trans-Canada Highway. Marathon is off the beaten track, therefore, they receive very few visitors. Hacio is hoping that signs directing travellers to Marathon will increase visitations. More consideration will also be given to retaining their youth.

“There has to be some strategies to ensure that the quality of life is such that youth want to remain, and that there are jobs available that are not entry-level jobs, but jobs that provide decent wages. It’s a young community and they have a lot of ideas so I think we are going to be successful.”

Marathon has come a long way in its fiscal management and is now able to look at spending and obtaining funds for the town.

Recently elected Mayor David Bell says meetings will be held to provide a forum to encourage residents and council to brainstorm on the possible building blocks for the town.

“One of the real keys for Marathon is to develop into a place that is a business-shopping centre for the North Shore.”

Because there are many communities within easy reach it seems a natural fit to make Marathon, which is centrally located, a one-stop location, he explains.

The Marathon marina is another project worth consideration, Bell says.

Approximately nine years ago, provincial government gave the town money to start the marina.

“We managed to put a four-kilometre road that leads to a marvelous beach and that was it. Funding or a combination of other things, or all of those things stopped, and it was put on a shelf and has stayed there ever since.”

Bell plans on viewing past material and reintroducing the marina proposal. Such a project would generate jobs from new small businesses and attract campers and boaters alike. But one of the most important positions that has to change if the town is to move forward is the presence of the economic development office, Bell says.

“We need some format of that. Whether or not it is a full-time EDO or part-time combined with other groups, but we do need somebody focused on pursuing the monies that are available and doing the business plan to sell those ideas.”

Speaking as the past president of the Chamber of Commerce, Svenkeson says she has seen many opportunities pass by her desk that she and her colleagues were unable to act upon.

“There is so much money out there that we lost. The chamber was prepared to do the legwork, but we couldn’t. It had to filter through an EDO office. It is really hard to get things going in your town when you don’t have that.”

With current layoffs at the mine and more looming in the future, Skworchinski says it is time to start creating a long-term plan.

“There is no question that we have to start planning now, in advance of 10 to 12 years when the mines do close. There is no possible way, unless a major industry comes in, that we can replace those types and number of jobs.”