Planning for the Boom [Northwestern Ontario] – by Livio Di Matteo (Northern Economist 2.0 – July 25, 2012)

An economics and policy blog from a Northern Ontario Perspective.

The talk of booms and rumours of booms continues in Northwestern Ontario and with good reason given the ramping up of mining activity.  Along with several mines currently in production, there are a number of planned projects. Cliffs Chromite Project in the Ring of Fire is about to undergo an environmental assessment.  Thunder Bay is currently the host to some 26 exploration companies with projects expected to produce gold over the next 3-5 years at Greenstone (Hard Rock), Atikokan (Hammond Reef), Pickle Lake (PC Gold Inc.) as well as several other places.  As well, Stillwater is planning to develop a copper project near Marathon. 

All this activity is generating exploration and supply work but the mining boom is not here yet.  Nonetheless, area governments are beginning “to plan” for the development that is underway and yet to come.  Atikokan apparently has commissioned a community readiness study that among other things argues that six major projects in the area will lead to substantial construction activity, home building and potentially a doubling of the population.  Thunder Bay is apparently also undertaking  a Mining Readiness Strategy that will attempt to capitalize on the mining development.

A boom with population growth would be a welcome development in Northwestern Ontario.  This would be a much different region if Thunder Bay had 150,000 people and Nipigon and Atikokan were communities of 20,000 people each.  Yet, it remains to be seen if all of this mining development will come to pass and yield the expected employment and income benefits given the volatility of world commodity prices.  Most of the economic benefits will flow from the prospecting, exploration and setting up the mines as operating mines today are much more capital intensive.

With respect to all the planning being undertaken, the emphasize seems to be entirely short term – that is, how to meet the needs of the anticipated increase in population and demand for housing as well as capitalizing on the mining employment.  A longer view needs to be taken. Three other things these communities need to plan for.  First, making sure that new construction and development creates urban density in communities rather than a short-term build it where you like frontier  mentality. 

Second, that some of the resource rents generated from these projects are invested in sovereign wealth funds for both the First Nations and the rest of the region’s residents to serve as a long-term source of income from a non-renewable resource.  Third, there be some thinking devoted to what happens when the mines close.  Is this too much to ask?

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