City of Thompson
The hub of the north
Less than 55 years ago, what is now the bustling city of Thompson was vast wilderness, nestled in mid-central Manitoba.
Thompson’s story starts in 1956, when Vale Inco discovered a nickel orebody big enough to justify building a community around a fully integrated mining complex. So it came to be. In addition to building its plant, Inco agreed to develop the city’s health care facilities, schools, municipal buildings and roads.
According to Mayor Tim Johnston, Thompson was originally designed for a population of 8,000 people and was only accessible via a spur line off of the Canadian National Railway (CNR) main line. Over the years, however, the mining operation’s success has led to further development of the region. The population has since doubled and transportation is certainly not an issue anymore; not only do most roads from northern communities lead into Thompson, but the city has one of the busiest airports in the province.
“Today, we are known as ‘The Hub of the North,’” says Johnston. “Thompson has emerged into a major service and transportation centre. Of course, Inco remains a major employer for the city, but we have also diversified in sectors, which distinguishes us from other northern mining communities.”
Leveraging the cold
A large part of Thompson’s success—other than the nickel deposit—is the city’s ability to identify and leverage its assets.
“When I was growing up, two of the city’s biggest challenges were geographical isolation and the cold climate—after all, we are located north of the 55th parallel,” Mayor Johnston explains. “Interestingly, those challenges are now two of our biggest qualities. Geographically, we are in the centre of the province which is an advantage in being the link between surrounding communities. From a climate point of view, Thompson is prime location for cold and winter-weather testing.” Prime location is right. Thompson has an average of 240 days per year of sub-zero temperatures and up to six months of snow cover—perfect conditions for cold soaks, snow ingestion and traction testing.
Traditionally, winter testing in Thompson has surrounded the auto industry. Ford Motor Company, for example, has been cold-weather testing in the city since the mid-1980s; eventually, Ford decided to stay and develop its global Extreme Cold Weather Test Facility in Thompson. Since then, the city has attracted other vehicle manufacturers, including Land Rover, Volvo, Chrysler, Hummer, Jaguar, Porsche, Honda and Mercedes-Benz.
Expanding from the automobile industry, Thompson now hosts testing for helicopters, snowmobiles and most recently, jet engines. “There has been a major investment to build a year-round jet engine testing facility, which is currently underway,” says Johnston.
Johnston is referring to the Canadian Environmental Test Research and Education Center (CanETREC), a globally unique engine test and certification centre. Its primary purpose will be for icing certification and researching aviation gas turbine engines for Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney—two of the three largest gas turbine manufacturers in the world. The testing technology used will also be applicable in other sectors, such as the bus and automotive manufacturing industries.
“The CanETREC facility solidifies that Thompson is recognised by many manufacturers and industries as having ideal conditions to make winter testing viable,” Johnston notes, proudly.
Learning from others
When asked how other communities can learn from Thompson, Mayor Johnston talks about the importance of communicating with and learning from other municipalities.
“Last December, we went to Fort McMurray, Alberta, where Mayor Melissa Blake and her administration were gracious enough to sit with us and talk about challenges they have overcome, because Thompson is dealing with similar issues, such as labour, housing and public safety,” Johnston says. “It was beneficial to talk to another municipality and get suggestions about how we should approach these challenges.”
“It’s good to have communities talking to each other,” he continues. “From Fort McMurray, we learned about making long-term development plan for community sustainability. We also learned to have a cooperative approach in partnering with both corporations and government for opportunities around the community. For example, City Council just voted unanimously for the establishment of the Thompson Housing Authority. We’re playing an active role in development and targeting affordable housing and market-driven housing. We want to be proactive in terms of forging the future we believe is here.”
All signs point to a positive economic outlook for Thompson’s future. “Vale Inco has made significant capital investments for more exploration,” says Johnston.
“As little as 10 years ago, there was a question about long-term mining prospects and what would happen after 2013. Now, the future of mining has been extended well beyond that. We’re confident Thompson will continue to play a role as a major mining centre for Manitoba and for the rest of Canada.”
“As for services, we are seeing major investments in Thompson from all sides,” the Mayor continues. “The government continues to fund services, such as healthcare, justice and education. In fact, we just got a commitment from Manitoba to develop and construct a new Thompson campus for University College of the North. That speaks very positively to future opportunities for our residents.”
Manitoba, and indeed Thompson, has weathered some of the global economic storms extremely well. According to Johnston, Manitoba initiated some major capital programs before the recession, which provided continued employment and development.
One of those programs is the Wuskwatim Generating Station, a Manitoba hydro development project located on the Burntwood River (which flows through Thompson). The station is currently one of the province’s largest construction projects and will provide almost 800 jobs over six years. The 200-megawatt generating station is being built 45 kilometres southwest of Thompson.
“The outlook for hydro development is positive for Thompson because of its geographical location,” Johnston adds. “We’re confident that with the initiation of Wuskwatim and the commitment to continue development, we’ll see the economic spinoff for years to come.”
Thompson has every reason to believe it will continue to grow and thrive as a city. By diversifying its industries, expanding public services and marketing itself on an international stage, The Hub of the North has forged for itself a bright future. CB