The very future of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. has emerged as the top issue in the provincial by-election.

This is largely because of the uncertainty hanging over the city's main employer, Essar Steel Algoma, which is currently in creditor protection.

"The entire community are holding our breath," said Green Party candidate Kara Flannigan.

On top of that, the population is shrinking, young people are moving out of the city and one of the few examples of diversification in the northeastern Ontario city — the Ontario Lottery and Gaming head office, which moved to the Sault in the 1990s — is slowly bleeding jobs to the crown corporation's Toronto office.

"Life in Sault Ste. Marie is not what it once was. We have truly reached a tipping point," said New Democrat candidate Joe Krmpotich.

"For many, getting the chance for full-time work is like winning the lottery. Young people are leaving the Sault in droves, and along with them, the future of our city."

Essar Steel parking lot

Some 2,100 people work at Essar Steel Algoma in Sault Ste. Marie, but the company is in creditor protection and the future of the mill is murky. (Erik White/CBC)

At debates this week, Progressive Conservative candidate Ross Romano repeatedly talked about his children and how long they'll stay in their hometown.

"I'm afraid of what the future is going to bring for them," said Romano, who serves on city council with Krmpotich. "Will our city be able to provide something? It makes me mad and it should make you mad too."

"The time for us to be ignored is no more. The time for change is now," he continued.

Liberal candidate, and former mayor, Debbie Amaroso agreed that the Sault is at a critical junction.

But she repeatedly pointed out that her party is in power for the next year and that while the Sault has had many opposition MPPs over the years "they worked hard, but they've achieved little."

"Every time they say something you have to ask yourselves: how are they going to do it?" Amaroso said of her opponents.

Port of Algoma

Sault Ste. Marie has been trying to convince the federal and provincial governments to redevelop the Port of Algoma on the St. Mary's River. (Erik White/CBC)

Other than pledges to fight for the steel industry and work on diversifying the economy, none of the parties have said exactly what they'd do for the Sault.

The job of the voters in this by-election is to force candidates to get specific and then hold them to those promises during the general provincial election next year, city councillor Matthew Shoemaker said.

"We need to extract from the parties, solid promises," he said.

​"All three provincial parties should be looked at to promise that all the OLG jobs should be in Sault Ste. Marie and I'm disappointed that none of the parties are talking about that specifically," Shoemaker added.

According to Shoemaker, the city's wish list includes local infrastructure projects, the multi-million-dollar Port of Algoma dream that would transform the small facility on the St. Mary's River into an international shipping hub and the possible chromite smelter to process ore from the Ring of Fire.

As for the Essar Steel situation, Shoemaker said there's little the provincial government can promise aside from securing pensions for the thousands of retired steelworkers in the Sault.

Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce CEO Rory Ring said his group is trying to shift the focus to provincial issues like hydro costs and carbon taxes that he said impacts small businesses in the city.

"They are trying to connect to the local issues and the local economy and we appreciate that," he said. "With a provincial election on the horizon, we're making sure that those issue surrounding the ability of our members to do business in Ontario is being heard."