Getting better all the time – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial (September 27, 2013)

Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

THE GLASS in Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario appears to be half-full and then some. Economic prospects are being touted, even on the once-dicey forestry front which is making a nice comeback after a recessionary bust. We will not see the same kind of forest industry any more. Instead, we will see advanced versions of traditional forestry and new ways to use trees. In a region where an estimated 60,000 jobs were lost to a perfect storm of economic, political and market challenges, any news of improvement is good news. There was some of that at a conference in Thunder Bay this week.

Where all but the hardiest pulp, paper and sawmills closed in the face of the 2008 recession, new growth is under way in innovations like biofuel. The Ontario generating station in Atikokan, for example, is being converted from coal to burn wood pellets and forestry in that region is rebounding to provide them.

The big pulp mill in Terrace Bay that thrived for years making traditional pulp for longtime owner Kimberly Clark’s Kleenex tissues, then closed, has been purchased by an Indian company that is converting it to produce dissolving pulp instead. The rayon ingredient is in high demand for textiles — everything from rayon to cellophane to tire cord — and specialty paper products like filters, among other products.

Thunder Bay’s large Resolute mill continues to survive and prosper by tailoring its output of pulp, paper and wood products to changing markets while it also invests heavily in environmental improvements.

Lumber mills are being reconsidered or reopened to meet a resumption in demand for boards to build houses in a rebounding American market — long our main, almost sole customer.

But the U.S. is not alone in needing building materials and Northern Ontario forestry is looking abroad to serve huge building growth in China and elsewhere in Asia.

This region’s traditional strong points — plenty of wood fibre, energy and skilled tradespeople — are why it can recover and grow, David Lindsay, head of the Forest Products Association of Canada, told the aptly named Prosperity Northwest conference.

Those tradespeople — some of whom had to move elsewhere in Canada for work — are again in line for many of their old jobs. Lindsay estimates Canada’s forest industry is going to need 60,000 additional employees by 2020. Of the 230,000 people currently working, 40,000 are approaching retirement. Career planning around family dinner tables and in schools needs to accommodate that fact.

Mining poses additional opportunities even as some of the multiple Ring of Fire prospects encounter growing pains. There is too much rich ore in the ground far to the north of Thunder Bay to prevent industry, government and First Nations from reaching agreement on how to share the wealth and get it out to markets.

Elsewhere in Thunder Bay this week, the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance hosted a session to show that the city can become a major sports tourism destination. The PGA has just announced plans for a major golf tournament here next year, major hockey leagues are interested, and we have a history of successful provincial, national and world games. With a wealth of all-season facilities, a talented volunteer base and a geographic advantage in the centre of North America, Thunder Bay can tailor itself to sports looking for logical places for big events.

The city itself is growing its potential with waterfront and downtown core developments augmented by growing interest from hotel chains, among other partners.

It is too early to say that the city and the surrounding area have beaten all of the odds and are back in the game as healthy as ever. But the outlook and potential haven’t felt this good in a long time.