Tuesday, 14 February 2012

In the most recent 2011 census , Thunder Bay, Ontario stood out as one of the few cities in Canada that saw a DECREASE in population. Of course , such numbers cause concern and lead to comments that Thunder Bay is dying a slow death , MP representation in northern Ontario will be decreased in the legislature ,etc.

I thought I would weigh in on this debate. I believe the census is probably mostly accurate - but it is wrong to make sweeping statements simply based on the census - unless additional supporting information is available that can justify the statement.  First - full disclosure. I do not live in Thunder Bay- I live in Fergus -a small town in southwestern Ontario ( actually Fergus is part of the amalgamated township of   Centre Wellington )  .  I went to Lakehead University in Thunder Bay from 1979-1982. My son is currently studying at Lakehead . I own property in Thunder Bay- and plan on purchasing more . I visit Thunder Bay at least two times a year.  There - I think that pretty much covers the disclosure bit.

The following is biased , of course - as it is my opinion. But I think it is an educated , balanced opinion based on the fact  I can view Thunder Bay as an "outsider" - yet still have an intimate knowledge of Thunder Bay - having followed its progress since 1979.  Obviously , I tipped off my bias above when I commented  I plan on purchasing more real estate. So - I summarize up front. First - Thunder Bay will grow - and its most prosperous days are ahead. Second - Mayor Hobbs and council - along with staff - are not doing a good enough job in promoting and marketing  Thunder Bay and district to the outside world - both from the perspective of living in Thunder Bay  - and starting business there. Statement two must change if statement one is to become true. ( The municipality is also not doing enough to ensure the protection and preservation of heritage buildings - and maintaining its public spaces - but that's a blog for another day. )         

To say the least, Thunder Bay has had a very "turbulent" past three decades. The current census numbers are part of the result . But what the numbers do not entirely reflect is the fact that a major transformation of the population base is occurring - and while I do not necessarily like the connotation of the following terms -  Thunder Bay is indeed  transforming from a "blue collar" town to a " white collar" city. Simplistic - but true. The fact that the existing population has mostly stabilized  during this transition is actually amazing. Now - complete transformation does not happen overnight - and local government can derail this if it is unprepared or makes missteps in managing this transformation. I am also making the assumption that provincial and federal governments continue their support during the transition.

I have read various letters to the editor and editorials - suggesting Thunder Bay is a "sleepover economy" , that there is no future for young people staying there due to a lack of jobs , that Thunder Bay real estate prices  in older areas show that the area is depressed , that the lack of  private investment shows there is a lack of confidence in the future of the area. These comments are good for debate - but I might respectfully say are ideologically flawed ( and factually incorrect in some cases ) .  I make the following comments as an entrepreneur , someone who is active in revitalization efforts in my own community ,  one who has also sat on  municipal council , and one who has kept tabs on  Thunder Bay for 33 years .  Significant public investment funding is a prerequisite for private investment in communities . The former has started in Thunder Bay - and the later will indeed follow at an increased pace shortly.  The general economic malaise throughout the country has slowed things down a bit - so speed of private investment coming to the table locally is not a reflection on Thunder Bay specifically. It's just the reality in the external marketplace. Thunder Bay is on the radar from an outside investment standpoint. Corporations such as Shoppers Drug Mart do not build new stores in areas where they project population will decline in the long run. Hotels do not build just to bed visitors passing through the area-  underlying local economic  growth must be evident. New residential building in Thunder Bay contradicts decreasing population statistics. Look at the new cafes and restaurants popping up around the city - including "on the way to becoming revitalized" areas like the Bay & Algoma district. And witness the plans for new condo developments - including at the Thunder Bay Country Club- amongst others.

And one further comment - on  Marina Park/ Prince Arthur's Landing. The project does have its detractors - both in terms of the project itself - and cost. Those who know me realize that preservation of natural areas is paramount to me - especially around water ways - so the following comment takes on added significance. This project is probably one of the smartest public waterfront developments to be undertaken anywhere in Canada - ever. Other communities will look at this development when complete with envy. And besides being a great people place, it will be a significant economic impetus to the future success of Thunder Bay. But be patient.

Simply put , the supporting information on Thunder Bay suggests  that  -  as a snapshot, the census may be mostly accurate in depicting a point in time for this community - but not its direction. Now let me say , many hurdles still need to be overcome before Thunder Bay can be trumpeted as a model in how to revitalize and reinvent  a community. But I do give credit where credit is due - the leaders of the community are on the right track. Some long term planning in revitalizing certain areas within the community is badly needed. And while quality of life is a best kept secret in Thunder Bay - the attributes of Thunder Bay must not be kept a secret any longer if it is to grow in population and become a long term viable community without government subsidy - and attract private investment - including new small businesses opened by newcomers to Thunder Bay as well as current young residents with entrepreneurship in their blood. Professionals,small business entrepreneurs, high tech start ups and transplanted retirees attracted to the area's quality of life will be the new  bloodline of Thunder Bay.

But the leaders of the community ( and not just the politicians , the business community as well ) must put
comprehensive plans ( marketing and otherwise ) and meaningful incentives in place NOW to encourage people to consider Thunder Bay as their first choice to live , play and work ( and start a new business ) .       It is time to put Thunder Bay on the map - a "Chicago of the North" - as visionaries thought the Lakehead  would be a century ago ( I personally think Chicago is one of the great cities - despite its flaws.) It is time for private investment to flow into Thunder Bay .                      

As I said - Thunder Bay will grow - and its most prosperous days are ahead.

George Mochrie
Fergus , Ontario