While mum’s still the word as to whether Fort Frances will seriously look into setting up a “sister city” or “twin city” with either Winchester or Paris, Tenn., Mayor Glenn Witherspoon said a trip to those cities last week was worthwhile and insightful.
“It was a very revealing trip,” he remarked. “We learned so much.
“Someone asked me before we left, ‘Why do you want to go to Tennessee and meet a bunch of hillbillies?’ Well, we went to Tennessee and there were only three hillbillies there—and they were from Canada,” he quipped.
Mayor Witherspoon, who travelled there with Fort Frances CAO Bill Naturkach and economic development officer Geoff Gillon, said the intention of the March 22-27 trip, which cost about $4,000, was to visit two cities with similar profiles as Fort Frances, including population, and a focus on tourism as a vital part of their economy.
“It was strange to go so far away and find they face the same types of problems as us,” said Gillon, adding the town—and the entire region—could learn much from what he saw in Tennessee.
“Because they’re thousands of miles away, we weren’t a threat to them. When we had a dialogue, they were very open,” Gillon noted. “I learned they’re very aggressive and probably ahead of us as far as economic development goes.
“The dying counties there are helped by an economic development corporation which is funded by an electric company, and [its] focus is to go after the big companies,” Gillon added.
“In Northwestern Ontario, we’re still working as individual towns or districts, and only talked theoretically about a regional approach,” he continued. “We don’t have much corporate interest here, but I think that’s where we have to go next.”
The trio toured the two cities’ municipal offices, police departments, and recreation centres, as well as taking in some sights like the Tims Ford State park, the Jack Daniels distillery, and an old jail converted into a museum.
“It’s only my personal opinion but I believe any grade eight student should have a tour of that jail,” said Naturkach, speaking of the museum.
“The size of the cells—you couldn’t imagine what they would be like in the hot Tennessee summer. There’s a whole lot of reason in that museum you shouldn’t get into trouble,” he remarked.
Conversely, Naturkach said the trio got to visit a new jail facility in Paris.
“The opportunity to go through the finished product was a highlight for us,” he said. “It’s on the other end of the process from the jail in Winchester.”
Naturkach noted the facilities were of particular interest because Fort Frances currently faces a possible closure of the jail here come 2004—just one of the similarities between here and the communities visited in Tennessee.
“And we didn’t know about all this until we got down there,” he marveled. “The similarities between the communities were parallel.
“And everybody, including us, had a pretty heavy accent. We would finish every sentence with ‘eh’ and they would say ‘y’all,” Naturkach chuckled.
Like Fort Frances. the two communities also are dealing with what to do with vacant or aging school buildings, like the old Fort High, and maintaining downtown core areas—a problem being addressed here by the “Re-Inventing Fort Frances” committee.
Not only did the trio see how municipal governance and economic issues were handled there, they also got the chance to promote local events such as the World Health Organization’s 11th-annual Conference on Safe Communities coming here next month.
They also highlighted the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship (Paris also is known for its bass fishing), “Fun in the Sun” festivities, and the town’s centennial celebration coming up in 2003 in an effort to promote tourism.
In addition to the interests of the municipal councils involved, the town is hoping this project could attract interest from various citizens and well as groups like the Business Women’s Network, Business Improvement Area, Chamber of Commerce, service clubs, and area First Nations.
“We’ll make the presentation and talk about our direction from here at the next council meeting,” said Mayor Witherspoon. “But what I can say right now is the mayor of Winchester, as well as the administrator and city planner, are coming here July 15 to visit for four days.”
In related news, Naturkach said the town still is awaiting word on the fate of a proposed remand centre here.
Consultants Sandy Baroudi and Gerry Pisarzowski, of the Toronto-based Advisory Services//GPA, suggested in late January that the town pursue expanding the current jail into a facility that could house up to 22 male inmates and four female ones, and employ 27 staff.
The town accepted the consultants’ report and has since submitted it to the Ministry of Correctional Services, with hopes to set up a meeting with minister Rob Sampson to discuss building the remand centre here.