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‘Summit’ speakers outline challenges facing area

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Speakers from fields ranging from agriculture to health care to education made it clear to the roughly 90 delegates on hand for last Thursday’s “Community Summit” here that the future holds many challenges for Fort Frances and district.

< *c>Education

Warren Hoshizaki, director of education for the Rainy River District School Board, noted enrolment has dropped considerably over the past five years, and dealing with that will be one of the board’s priorities in the future.

In 1999, for instance, there were 2,015.10 elementary school students under the public board and 1,453.10 secondary students.

In 2004, those numbers dropped to 1,687.7 and 1,326.31, respectively. That’s a total enrolment decline of 454.09 students.

But the number of staff only has dropped from 415 to 409—despite fewer students and the fact several local schools have closed their doors in recent years.

Hoshizaki also said the board will not lose focus on the quality of education for students here. “We think students going to school in our district should have the same opportunities as anywhere else in the province,” he stressed.

Another area to be addressed here is promoting literacy among boys—a common problem elsewhere—while another is keeping kids in school.

At the “summit,” Fort High principal Ian Simpson said the dropout rate here is about 15 percent, with four or five percent eventually getting their diplomas through an alternate means.

But there are numerous programs in place to promote people completing their secondary education, whether it’s alternative education or a recent partnership with the United Native Friendship for an adult education program.

Hoshizaki noted an interesting trend in staffing is that of the 50 teachers hired by the board in the past three years, most are originally from here or married to someone who is.

He added the board does prefer to hire teachers originally from the district, as it often means they’ll stay here, and possibly have children, thereby increasing enrolment.

Hoshizaki also noted major renovations recently were done at J.W. Walker and North Star Community School in Atikokan, and that the school board will continue to keep on top of renovations so as to not be left in a situation in 10 or 15 years with buildings in such disrepair it will be forced to build new ones.

Hoshizaki noted that while “education has changed greatly in the last five to six years,” the board has kept on top of the curriculum changes—and student achievement in the district has been above-average when compared to the rest of the province.

“If they [students] are very successful, it’s good for the community and for their self-esteem,” he remarked, adding the board will continue to make student achievement a high priority.

The school board also has put a focus on technology, with 5:1 ratio of students to computers at the elementary level and 3:1 at the secondary, a wide area network (WAN), connection to the ORION network, videoconferencing involving students, and more.

Such access to high technology, said Hoshizaki, is comparable to, or in many cases even better than, what students are getting elsewhere in the province.

When asked about a shortage of people with skilled trades in the region, Hoshizaki replied there are seven students under the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program at Fort High, but it is difficult to get them placements.

But he added training in the skilled trades would be another area of focus for the board when looking into the future.

< *c>Paper industry

John Harrison, general manger of the Abitibi-Consolidated mill here, said the paper industry faces its shares of challenges, too.

He noted the price of “every part of the process” has gone up over recent years—from the cost of natural gas to transportation rates.

He noted the paper industry, as a whole, also has faced troubles due to a lack of growth in the newsprint market, but added the local mill is still “doing well” due to the fact it has changed its operations over the years to produce higher grade paper, and not be reliant on lower quality paper like newsprint.

He also said the higher Canadian dollar has hurt business because Abitibi deals in U.S. dollars. And the softwood lumber dispute has proved an obstacle, resulting in the loss of estimated $200 million for the company in the past several years—an average of $20 million each quarter.

Harrison also said any industry in the region utilizing wood as a natural resource is affected by the “tightening wood situation,” and stressed the government needs to recognize that “any further players” in the industry here could upset Northwestern Ontario’s “wood basket.”

When asked if the number of mill workers here would ever increase, Harrison noted the number probably would remain stable for now, with some new employees only hired to replace retirees.

Harrison added the miill is an “excellent facility,” with a good safety record, and it continues to be the major employer in town. The mill also contributes $2.6 million annually to the municipal tax base.

< *c>First Nations

Richard Bruyere, executive director for the Fort Frances Chiefs Secretariat, said he feels area First Nations will play a greater part in the district economy in the future, and have much to offer in terms of partnerships.

“There is a lot of clouds, or mist, out there because a lot of people don’t understand the role aboriginals can play in the economic development of the area,” he remarked.

Bruyere noted the recent broadband announcement was proof of what can be accomplished with First Nations partnerships, adding Pwi-Di-Goo-Zing Ne-Yaa-Zhing Advisory Services, Seven Generations Institute, and the Gizhewaadiziwin Access Centre are examples of resources available.

He said one challenge in the future is to establish a money-lending system. If a First Nation’s person lives on a reserve, and wants to starts up a business, it’s very difficult for them to acquire a bank loan against their home.

While a microloan system has been established to partially rectify this, it is a topic to be fully dealt with in the future.

He also noted the loss of educated young people from the area is a common problem in the district.

“Because we are neighbours, I think we have to face those challenges together,” Bruyere remarked. “We will succeed. We will forage ahead to secure a part of the economy in the district.”

< *c>Tourism

With more than 30 years’ experience in the tourism business, the industry has changed a lot over time, Sandy Dickson, co-owner of Canoe Canada Outfitters and president of Atikokan Aero Services Inc., told delegates at Thursday’s “community summit” here.

But if regional communities want to ensure tourism remains a part of the local economy, they’re going to have to do more changing still.

Dickson said tourism no longer is just about getting tourists to come here, but packaging an “experience” for them that make them tell others about the area—and even come back themselves.

She noted the region is “safe, clean, and green,” and should be marketed as such. The experience of the tranquil environment should be at the forefront when promoting the area as should being able to drink water right from the lake.

“It’s about enjoying the experience, and not being consumptive,” said Dickson.

Since 9/11, and possibly even moreso with the recent tsunami disaster in South Asia, Dickson said U.S. tourists want to stay closer to home when they do travel.

And now is the time for Canada to be perceived as proving them a “safe vacation in a pristine environment.”

She stressed tourism has a “huge value” since the dollars come from outside the area.

“Never take tourists for granted,” said Dickson, adding they have higher standards than ever before—requiring tourist operators to prove their product is “world-class.”

Dickson said one challenge facing the industry is convincing operators that “low-volume, low-impact, high-yield” tourism is better than “high-volume, high-impact, low-yield.”

She noted this could mean a move towards consolidating marginal camps in certain areas to provide higher-value experiences for paying tourists.

Dickson added tourist operators must create packages involving as many local businesses as possible to spread the wealth, and themselves buy locally (or at least regionally) whenever possible.

She noted marketing has to be done specifically to get U.S. residents here, given 65 percent of U.S. citizens who travel have never considered coming to Canada for vacation.

She said the government also has to do its part by being “more business-like,” and not only cater to tourists by adding more lanes to parts of the Trans-Canada and adding more stops, but by actively seeking input from tourist operators, provincial park workers, and others who work first-hand with tourists.

And Dickson noted Canada Customs should realize its officers are the country’s ”first line of tourism” and train them to be “more respectful of visitors.”

Dickson also stressed Fort Frances and Rainy Lake have a lot more potential as a tourist destination.

“In the Town of Fort Frances, you are especially lucky because you have the border crossing at your doorstep. Nearly every single visitor that comes to the northwest has to drive through our community,” she remarked.

“Your job, however, is to capitalize on those visitors; find a way to get them to do more than just drive through your town. . . .

“You have to be commended on doing an excellent job of getting the word out that Rainy Lake, Ontario, Canada is a premier destination for smallmouth bass fishing,” she added. “It’s a success story that you can build on.”

< *c>Retail

“I believe we need to guard against the erosion of the downtown core.”

That’s the message local businessman John McTaggart delivered last Thursday before the 90 delegates at the first-ever “Community Summit” at La Place Rendez-Vous.

McTaggart noted that although “big box” stores arrived on the scene last year and changed the face of retail here, looking back over the past 35 years, many businesses have come and gone in the face of new competition while others have survived.

For instance, when the first incarnation of the local Canada Safeway store opened here in the 1960s, a number of small neighbourhood grocery stores closed their doors.

But what is becoming clear is the division between the downtown and the west-end businesses, which now include everything from Wal-Mart and Canadian Tire to North American Lumber (which used to be downtown) and “fast food alley.”

While the “downtown is not down and out,” quipped McTaggart, he warned against the demise of independent retailers in face of “big box” retailers, citing cities like Thunder Bay and Winnipeg that have seen their downtown cores all but die.

He noted independent retailers have an advantage over “big box” stores in that they are not all the same, do not sell all the same merchandise, and can be much more in tune with what customers want.

McTaggart stressed small retailers must make customer service a top priority, as well as look at the “want value” of their goods—that is, not worry about selling goods that customers need so much as what they want and see as a luxury.

McTaggart added retailers should listen to the youth, and always be thinking ahead while at the same time never losing track of the present.

“Retailers, like farmers, are the optimists in the world. Next year will be better, and it will,” he concluded.

< *c>Agriculture

The farming industry may be on a slow decline in Rainy River District, but local cattle rancher Kim Cornell feels that with some changes, it could grow to become a greater part of the economy.

Cornell noted challenges in the industry include the high price of technology, the high cost of energy, and the lack of high-speed Internet for the entire district.

Cornell also said a federally-inspected abattoir in the district would solve local cattle farmers’ woes, allowing meat to be processed and sold not only here but anywhere else in the country and even the world.

He stressed the district’s “clean, green, and safe” image undoubtedly would help sell meat abroad.

Cornell said another concern was use of land here. He noted some U.S, citizens have been buying affordable rural land in the district for recreational use, adding that if the land had been developed for agricultural use instead, it would contribute much more to the tax base.

On a similar note, if district residents aren’t interested in setting up farms, why not market the land to European investors, asked Cornell.

He noted that youth also have to be educated about farming as a viable career since more and more of the children of farmers are declining to take over the family farm.

He said the district could use more dairy farms (dairy cows produce an average of $5,000 annually while currently a beef cow produces only $500-600) while hog barns are an unexplored avenue here.

“I would invite a hog barn to be built beside me. It would save me $25,000 a year on fertilizer,” he remarked. “Nobody’s building hog barns here. I think they’re missing out on an opportunity.”

Cornell added he felt it was a wrong to ship wood waste out of the area to be burned in the mines at Eveleth, Mn. when it could be used as fertilizer here.

Cornell also said farmers need more resource support from the province, noting there used to be 50 Ministry of Agriculture reps in the province but now there’s only 11.

Looking at some statistics, Cornell noted the number of farms in the district decreased from 380 in 1986 to 320 in 2001. Only 73 of those currently have gross revenue over $50,000.

< *c>Health care

Utilizing technology for long-distance medical care will be used even more in the future, Bob Jeffery, northern development analyst with the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, told delegates at last Thursday’s “Community Summit.”

Jeffery said medical services in Ontario seems to be steering towards more specialized care, with general practitioners likely to become “brokers” and directing patients to specialists in most cases.

Due to economy of scale, many of these specialists will be in larger centres. Fortunately, said Jeffery, this does not mean patients necessarily will have to travel far for treatment, as more care will be accessible through teleconferencing and other technologies.

This same technology not only removes geographic barriers for patients, but health care professionals, too, who can access training and support.

Jeffery also said that as medical research goes on, more options for treatments will increase.

This means both doctors and patients will have to learn more about medicine than they do now, and physicians will have to take on an increasing role as educator—interpreting risks and benefits of alternate treatments for their patients.

Jeffery noted electronic health records definitely will be part of the future, too, with health care centres able to transfer patients’ records instantly from hospital to hospital, clinic to clinic.

And looking even further down the road, Jeffery felt biotechnology and gene technology will come into play. This will lead to personalized medical programs, allowing health care professionals to anticipate genetic medical conditions like diabetes and, if at all possible, prevent them.

Jeffery said challenges in the health care sector include investing money in medical technology while developing strategies to increase access, including telehealth and having specialized care close to home.

Looking at demographics, Jeffery noted the population of Rainy River District is on the decline—and the feasible way to boost the population is immigration.

Immigrants account for only seven percent of the district’s population while the provincial average is 26 percent.

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