Economic Development Corporation of Wawa
The beautiful township of Wawa, Ont. is a small, close-knit community of 3,000 residents and located in the Algoma District in the northern portion of the province, 900 km northwest of Toronto. The entire Wawa Region has a population of 6,500 people living in: Chapleau, White River, Dubreuilville, and six First Nation’s communities including the Michipicoten First Nation. Until 2007, it was known as the township of Michipicoten, but changed to Wawa, as most people from outside the area associate the region by that name anyhow – besides which, many people had trouble pronouncing Michipicoten.
Due to its close proximity to the U.S. border, Wawa often touts its ability to provide affordable housing and wonderful clean country air. The Wawa Community Profile provides an overview of the superior quality of life, availability of skilled labour, affordable land and opportunities that exist in the community.
One of the landmarks in Wawa for more than a half century has been a 28-foot-tall metal statue of a Canada goose, which was dedicated to the town in 1961. Wawa takes its name from the Ojibwe word for “wild goose”.
With about 120 registered businesses, Wawa’s main economic drivers throughout the years have primarily focused on mining and forestry. Other sectors of strength include tourism & hospitality and hydro generation.
In 2003, the Economic Development Corporation of Wawa was formed, as part of an evolutionary business advancement brought forth by a committee of town council that was examining options for enhanced enterprise development. The business community felt that the public wanted a separate corporation to really focus on economic stimulus. The full council accepted the recommendation from the committee and so the corporation was created. Maury O’Neill, chief executive officer has been with the EDC for 10 years and recalls those early days.
“It was at a time when the effects of the closure of the Algoma ore division of Algoma Steel, which had occurred in about 1998, really was showing all its ugly effects,” she tells CBJ. “Our major industry and major employer for the majority of what was life, closed its doors and it took approximately four to five years to really see what the closure of that industry did to the community.”
Mining and Forestry
The loss of industry resulted in the population declining from 4,600 in 1998 to less than 3,000. In more recent history, about five to seven years ago, the effects of the decline of the forestry sector started to rear its head. There were three forest companies in the region: Domtar, Weyerhaeuser and Buchanan but with the slowdown, the industry began to lay people off with all three eventually closing. NAFTA and disagreements over tariffs into the U.S. were two primary reasons cited by those in the community and also the increased value of the Canadian dollar. But O’Neill makes it clear that Wawa is an excellent place for businesses to operate.
“We want to be known as a very business friendly community that takes a sustainable approach to developing all its natural resources, which includes gold, diamonds and any minerals we can find,” she says. “Combined with that is also the forestry sector, which is showing signs of improvement. We are now in the midst of undertaking a Wawa Mining Sector Growth Strategy Study.”
Wesdome Gold Mines holds a strong presence in the community and has been successfully mining in various parts of Canada for more than 25 years. Its philosophy has been to build up long-term, sustainable operations with modest initial capital costs. Its local mine is known as Eagle River.
“Wesdome has its Assay lab in the community,” O’Neill remarks. “There are 16 people working there and they are all local employees. An Assay lab is where you can bring in your core samples and then they go through the scientific process of leeching out the other rocks and minerals. You then end up with gold samples for weighing and from there extrapolate what a drill has and if there’s a potential for gold – it’s the drill samples they do.”
The fact a gold miner in the community has its own Assay lab is quite unique, and something O’Neill and the community can definitely be proud about.
“Some explorers and drilling have to send their samples to Assay labs that are certified and it’s actually surprising how few there are across Canada,” she reveals. “They have about 60 people working and living in Wawa; then they have about 270 employees at their mill site. Here, they say about 173 are hourly workers, 44 salaries and 50 to 60 are contract workers. About 55 to 60 per cent are local employees.”
A state of emergency was declared in October of 2012 due to excessive flooding, which forced the closure of two main arteries in and out of the town. O’Neill says it was a difficult time, but the resiliency of the community has resulted in an amazing recovery.
“The flood was devastating to some businesses and some residents in the community but we were really fortunate that it really only affected two businesses for the long term and a few residential homes,” O’Neill mentions. “The amount of infrastructure that was damaged by the flood under the responsibility of the taxpayers of the municipality of Wawa was substantial and in fact the province, through its Disaster Relief Fund, provided us with about $9 million to fix the infrastructure.”
Two main bridges that provide access to some parts of the community have still not been repaired. The provincial government has committed funds to rebuild them but due to weather and other factors, reconstruction has been delayed. The hope is that both will be up and operational by this winter. The loss of the bridges has caused Wawa to redeploy some of its municipal services.
“The financial costs to the municipality is still being felt because we had to use our snowplough crews to plow alternate routes for residents to get here from such areas as Michipicoten First Nation,” O’Neill continues.
On the private sector side, O’Neill says Wawa received a commitment from the province that local fundraising would be matched at a 2 to 1 ratio, meaning that for every dollar raised in the community, the government would put forth $2.
“Our committee raised $50,000 and the province will put in $100,000, so we have $150,000 through our local committee to distribute to private land owners who did not have insurance coverage to replace their losses.”
Despite facing hardships in the past, Wawa has come through a number of difficult situations and is focusing on the positives of the future. The Economic Development Corporation will be instrumental in that process.
“Our job is to assist anybody with business needs, and to provide new and exciting opportunities to the town of Wawa,” O’Neill says. “We’re here to help in any way we can.”