BRESLAU — The sun is just starting to peek above the horizon as a handful of men in work boots suck on their last cigarettes outside the airport terminal, getting ready for the long commute.
In a few minutes, they’ll join dozens of others boarding the Boeing 737 for the five-and-a-half hour charter flight to Mary River, Baffin Island — where a small army of pipe fitters, machinists, cooks, engineers and other tradespeople are helping build and supply one of the world’s largest and most ambitious iron ore mining projects.
For hundreds of workers passing through the Region of Waterloo International Airport three times a week, Waterloo Region is a southern hub for the buried riches of the Far North. And that connection is pumping millions into the local economy.
The Mary River Project, run by an Oakville-based company called Baffinland, aims to move its first shipment of iron ore — the main raw material used to make steel — this summer.
The ore deposits in that part of Baffin Island, first discovered by a prospector in 1962, are so rich and pure they’re the stuff of legend. Pilots used to report the minerals would scramble their compasses as they flew over.
Until now, no company attempted to extract it, at least not on this scale.
Baffinland has approval to mine up to 18 million tonnes annually, but believes there’s enough ore in the ground to last a century. The company plans to spend $750 million in the mine’s first phase. Early estimates pegged the project’s total lifespan budget at over $4 billion.
Mary River has been good for business for the Waterloo Region companies supplying the project’s busing, catering, jet fuel, apartments, hotels, work wear, tools and more. Other mine workers, drawn by the project, have also relocated here, bought homes and settled into the community.
“The spinoffs to this area are huge,” said Lorne Miller, owner of the Edelweiss Tavern in Kitchener. “Their attitude is they want to put as much back into this area as they can, and they’ve put a ton back. I want to grow with these guys.”
His catering division is producing up to 600 meals a week to feed the mine workers breakfast and lunch during inflight meals — work that required him to expand his cooking staff by three people and keeps his delivery guy running.
At the Holiday Inn Kitchener-Waterloo Conference Centre, Baffinland’s mine workers rented “thousands” of rooms last year. The local hotel is the temporary home for out-of-town employees and contractors who stay there before flying out to Mary River.
That steady supply of mid-week guests fills the hotel’s restaurant and seats on its airport shuttle service, and caused management to increase staffing levels.
“This is a good base business for me. If I didn’t have this, there would be a pretty drastic decrease in my numbers. I would have to lay off staff,” said Salim Mukadam, the hotel’s general manager.
“We know Monday to Thursday, we can rely on this. The economic impact is on so many levels.
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