FORT FRANCES—“It takes critical mass to do something. That’s why small communities have to work together.”
That’s the message Dr. Mark Partridge, a professor in rural-urban policy at Ohio State University, relayed during his talk, “Resource Communities in Transitions: Building a Prosperous Northern Ontario,” to about 60 district residents who gathered here Tuesday for “Community Summit II.”
Dr. Partridge noted that in a time when the economy of rural areas in North America no longer is resource-based, small communities have to start thinking about ways to sustain themselves by linking up with neighbouring communities and starting a “growth cluster” to gain “critical mass”—essentially, becoming a bigger body to attract more residents and investors.
He pointed out Fort Frances is a good example of a community that exhibits the qualities of a growth cluster, but has yet to realize and capitalize on that.
For instance, whether you go out 50, 75, or even 100 km, there’s a lot of interconnectivity in Rainy River District. Residents rely on Fort Frances, and it benefits them, whether people are commuting here to work, to shop, or access services.
Dr. Partridge noted, however, that they need to link up formally to be effective as a single body.
He stressed that amalgamation of municipalities is something that could be considered, adding people have become too attached to old municipal boundaries that reflect a time before automobiles.
“People have to realize they’re neighbours and they have the same needs,” said Dr. Partridge.
He argued that while some people may feel they have a say in a small community, and would lose that if they became part of a regional body, “you can be easily ignored on your own,” and, in fact, only a region will get its voice heard.
Dr. Partridge also said this requires building a regional identity—with each district community “no longer thinking of themselves as an island.”
A good example of positive growth patterns is the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul), noted Dr. Partridge. In the 1960s, the growth spread to places like Brainerd, Mn., then moved further north over time.
It’s now grown to Grand Rapids—revitalizing an area that had been hurt by the mining industry in the 1970s.
Dr. Partridge noted that if you look at a map of Minnesota, you’ll notice the growth trend moving north towards Koochiching County, and postulated Fort Frances should try and benefit from what may be coming International Falls’ way.
“The trends of successful regional development are heading this way,” he stressed. “The key is to recognize communities are much more interconnected than they used to be.
“I think this region has critical mass—it just has to carry through with it,” Dr. Partridge added. “You need to hear something different to help you move forward.”
The other three guest speakers at Tuesday’s summit, held at La Place Rendez-Vous, included Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union national rep Rene Lindquist, Clover Valley Farmers’ Market manager Deb Cornell, and Jerry Fisher, vice-president of the North Western Ontario Tourism Association.
Lindquist noted the forestry crisis, and the McGuinty government, has to be sent a message that the people of Ontario won’t take it anymore.
Last year, he said, 17 municipal councils across Northern Ontario passed resolutions calling on the province to engage all stakeholders in the development of an economic strategy that will sustain resource dependent communities and to immediately conduct public hearings on the forestry crisis.
But nothing ever came out of that, “as mill after mill went down last summer, the premier played golf and attended fundraiser barbecues.”
Lindquist stressed the Ontario Federation of Labour, CEP, and United Steel Workers will be planning public hearings to give citizens a chance for their voices to be heard regarding the forestry crisis in the near future.
He also said CEP and United Steel Workers have created an eight point plan to address the issues confronting the forest industry, including:
•a government jobs commissioner to be responsible for developing and keeping economic strategies for communities dependent on resource industries;
•a regional power authority to see that cheap energy produced in Northern Ontario is utilized here; and
•community-controlled fibre allocation so that no local resources would go to waste in the hands of corporations.
For her part, Cornell called for the district agricultural community to work together, and look at ways to brand themselves and add value to products.
She noted a group of area representatives went on a trip to Alberta recently and were witness to numerous ways in which businesses there made the most of their products.
One example was a farm that doubles as a guest ranch for rug hookers and scrap bookers to plan retreats to. Another was a honey farmer who sold flavoured honey for six times what naturally-flavoured honey could be sold for.
Another example was the “Innisfall Growers” a group of 10 farming families that grow produce separately but team up to sell it under single brand name.
Cornell also gave an update on district agricultural issues since the first community summit was held here in 2005, and outlined some of the current issues facing the industry, including:
•the lack of an abattoir;
•the lack of community co-ordination;
•the need to develop a consistent attractive branded product image;
•the need for more alternative marketing opportunities;
•the need for a regional distribution system for local producers;
•the need to capture more value-added revenue;
•more direct farm marketing; and
•the need for high-speed Internet
But Cornell noted some solutions are in sight. For example, there is a proposal in to FedNor for a district agricultural economic impact study, as well as one for a three-year agricultural co-ordinator position.
As well, there is increasing support for the abattoir initiative.
Fisher, filling in for Gerry Cariou of the Ontario Sunset Country Tourist Association (who got “snowed in” and couldn’t make it here), gave attendees an update on the new “Destination Marketing” program.
Fisher noted that given the number of U.S. vehicles that crossed at the border here last year was down by six percent, as well as the fact a recent survey showed one-third of U.S. citizens had “no impressions” of Canada, the region has to keep trying to attract tourists here.
“Canada is falling off the map with U.S. travellers,” he warned, adding that nearly every country but Canada is increasing their spending to attract foreign visitors.
In an attempt to solve this, NWOTA and the Kenora District Campowners Association (KDCA), along with several other partners, have formed a steering to committee for the “Destination Marketing” fund.
Using a voluntary form of taxation to resort and accommodation businesses, the intention of the fund will be to market the region to the U.S. Midwest.
The steering committee also is developing a website (www.nwodestinations.com) pointing potential tourists to the region, and planning conferences regarding the new fund, to be held across the region later this year, noted Fisher.
Eventually, a “Destination Marketing” board will be formed.
Fisher stressed regional communities have to realize the importance of the economic spin-offs of tourism, noting there are people who don’t welcome tourists to their communities, making some tourist operators “feel like the enemy.”
“Northwestern Ontario has to decide whether it wants to be in the tourism business,” he concluded.
Just as at the conclusion of the 2005 community summit, when several committees were struck to take on an action plan, attendees at Tuesday’s meeting identified areas they feel need more work.
These areas included:
•the need to promote and create an alternative tourism experience;
•the need to utilize technology and explore its uses;
•improving partnerships with First Nations; and
•the need to market Northwestern Ontario co-operatively.
Summit organizers, including Fort Frances Times publisher Jim Cumming and Fort Frances Coun. Tannis Drysdale, will take this input and record it for future use.
“Community Summit II” was sponsored by the Town of Fort Frances, Fort Frances Chamber of Commerce, and Rainy River Future Development Corp.