Life by the lake
Sitting at the top of Lake of the Woods, one of the largest lakes in Canada, just a short drive from the Manitoba-Ontario border, is the city of Kenora,. The city was created only ten years ago, when former towns of Kenora, Keewatin and Jaffray Melick were amalgamated into one community, now home to 17,000 residents.
Kenora’s lakeside population shrinks and swells depending on the season, seeing bulks of tourists and cottagers in the summer as well as those who come for short trips to the Lake.
According to the city website, with its Mayor Len Compton echoing the message, the city of Kenora is “officially open for business,” and is “seeking out new companies, expansions and retention of existing businesses.” Kenora is constantly seeking development and has a strategy to actively seek certain industries at a time.
The short list of industries being targeted recently, are recreational products, value-added wood products, and non-timber forestry products, in addition to tourism. Tourism, not surprising due to the city’s location, is the city’s second major employer—over 200 resorts are located near the city, mostly on the Lake of the Woods.
According to Ontario’s Ministry of Trade, 99.9 per cent of accommodation related jobs in Northern Ontario are a result of the tourism industry. Kenora’s traditional markets, according to the city, are centred in Winnipeg and other Manitoba cities, which account for approximately 50 per cent of traffic, and then Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Eastern Ontario making up the remainder.
Big industry in Kenora
Major employers in Kenora include Wal-Mart, who opened an 80,000 square foot store at the site of the former Kenora Public Works Yard. It is located adjacent to the new 60,000-square-foot Canadian Tire/Mark’s Work Warehouse building. These two major retailers bring a new look to Kenora’s retail scene, and “add a major new shopping power centre to Kenora.” Another major company in Kenora is Trus Joist, who opened a plant in 2000.
According to city reports, Trus Joist was “selected by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources in 1999 to steward the Kenora Forest Management Unit and construct a value-added wood product plant in the Kenora area.” With the $258 million plant, the company employs 230 employees and brought a modern manufacturing technology to Kenora, showing how diverse the business climate is for the city. These are just a few of the examples of how industry is continuously growing for Kenora.
Probably Kenora’s best spokespeople are those who have lived lifetimes in the city like Mayor Compton. Though he was born in P.E.I., he and his family have lived in the city since 1963. Compton says that even through the economic “bumps in the road”, Kenora has fared well. However, that’s not to say that the community didn’t feel the loss of a local paper mill when it closed in 2005.
“Previous recessions didn’t affect the community in any substantial way because the paper mill was up and running before, and it employed 1000 people. With the summer residential people contributing to the local community as well, we were insulated in Kenora,” Compton explains. The mill had been running for 80 years prior to its shut down.
Now, investors and developer are bidding for the site of the mill, which was torn down and now the site remains empty. Talks of a possible five star hotel or perhaps a marina are in the works, all good news for job prospects in the city. However, the city learned with the paper mill shutting down that it needed to diversify. “When the mill shut, 361 workers lost their jobs, and we had to start restructuring,” Compton adds, hence trying to attract big conglomerates like Wal-Mart and other retail powerhouses.
Nevertheless, Kenora has a gem of a tourist industry in its favour—due to the Lake of the Woods, something that can’t be taken away from residents. “We’re also in close proximity to Winnipeg and we’re directing a lot of our marketing to ramp up for our best tourist seasons ever,” Compton adds.
Thousands of people have summer residences around the lake, and local First Nation reserves also provide boosts into the local economy.
One of the most successful First Nations businesses to date has been Wincrief Homes. Wincrief Homes is located in a 15,000-square-foot shop in Kenora. The company is 51 per cent owned by Wabaseemoong Independent First Nations and has 20 employees, and is constantly growing. “We want to encourage partnerships with Native groups, and businesses in our community are continuously joining forces to work together,” explains Compton.
Kenora is currently focused on a downtown revitalization project, like many growing cities in Canada. “We want to make sure that our infrastructure is as such that we can encourage people to come here as a destination. We also need to make sure it is up to par so that it will encourage people to invest in the downtown,” Compton comments.
Kenora’s Downtown Revitalization Plan was approved by the city’s Council in 2004, with Phase I of the project including replacing outdated underground utilities, roadway improvements, landscaping, streetscaping, and parking improvements. The costs for this phase were shared by the Province of Ontario, Government of Canada and City of Kenora.
Phase II of the project is now underway, and many of the changes visitors have seen have been in the Harbourfront (Bernier Drive) area. All in all, the city is looking forward to drawing more people in.
Kenora is also building a new fire hall, upgrading its recreation centre, and expanding its centre at the border where people come into Ontario from Manitoba. Mayor Compton says they are looking to “have a gateway into the province that’s up to par, and have a tourist information centre that’s open all year.”
In fact, other development projects are also aimed at drawing in tourists all year round. A $50 million condominium development is being built near Tunnel Island, which is a historic site dating back more than 8,000 years.
With so much potential rooted in the location of Kenora, and so many opportunities to invest near a site like the Lake of the Woods, businesses and tourists alike have every reason to go to the city. Although Lake of the Woods used to be known as strictly a “playground for the privileged”, Kenora has certainly developed into a prime centre for business and community living—for all who are looking for a life by the Lake.