Sudbury·Up North

Did FedNor gamble on a multi-million dollar space lab in North Bay?

In 2014, there was great fanfare as officials with FedNor, North Bay’s Canadore College and a Swiss aerospace company announced a new venture. Now, the company has disappeared, reportedly bankrupt.

Swiss Space Systems, also known as S3, was to work with Canadore College to test equipment

The new venture with S3 was billed as the key to open up the space aeronautics industry in North Bay, bringing economic development and new jobs. (S3)

In 2014, there was great fanfare as officials with FedNor, North Bay's Canadore College and a Swiss aerospace company announced a new venture.

Now, the company has disappeared, reportedly bankrupt.

Swiss Space Systems, also known as S3, was to work with the school to test equipment that could one day launch small satellites into orbit.

The company also planned to offer zero-gravity flights to the public out of North Bay.

To help with that project, a $9-million lab was built at Canadore College.

Money from the company, the college, and taxpayers went towards the state-of-the-art facility.

Federal, provincial, and local politicians posed for photos.

The new venture was billed as the key to opening up the space aeronautics industry in North Bay, bringing economic development and new jobs.

Canadore's role was to assist S3 in its research related to the company's small satellite launch business. The college was to help them test a number of "test packages" to see how they could get these satellites into space. S3 was to pay the school to do the tests. (S3)

Testing, testing

But less than three years later, the company has reportedly declared bankruptcy and is no longer talking to its partners in the north.

Canadore was originally approached by S3 with the idea, says Aime Dimatteo, the director general of FedNor.

"And as a result of them negotiating with the company, and then bringing to us an application — along too with the province of Ontario. They were able then to secure the [financial] support."

The federal economic funding agency decided to provide $2 million to Canadore.

The company put in $4 million — and the facility opened.

Canadore's role was to assist S3 in its research related to the company's small satellite launch business. The company paid Canadore to try out several "test packages."

But then just last week, news came that the company might be bankrupt.

No answers

Despite several media reports, CBC News hasn't been able to confirm a bankruptcy with the company directly, as it has not answered requests for information.

Canadore college as well as city officials say they haven't heard from the company in months.

Canadore president George Burton told CBC he last spoke to the company in April.

At the time, Burton said the company gave him no indication that S3 was in any sort of trouble.  Burton said he reached out to the company when he heard the bankruptcy news, but hasn't heard anything back.

Burton says the college is pushing on.

"We have been in constant conversations with other companies that are involved in different aspects of space, regarding use of our facilities and use of the test airspace around North Bay."

Burton couldn't say who those companies are, because of confidentiality agreements.

With the college's expanded facilities, Canadore said it has partnered with 14 different businesses.

Where are the jobs?

In the original funding announcement in 2014 the MP at the time — Conservative Jay Aspin — told local media the facility would create 40 jobs in the north.

But mayor Al McDonald told CBC News as far as he knows, no local jobs have been created because of the project.

"S3 didn't have any employees or an office in the city of North Bay," McDonald said.

"They would come in and do tests, and then they would leave. So, at one point, they might bring 10 or 15 people in for a couple days to do some testing, but they would always fly out. Our local hotels and restaurants benefitted."

McDonald said the city didn't invest any money in the project or company, but did invest time and effort.

'Gambling' in northern Ontario

Charlie Angus, NDP member for Timmins-James Bay and FedNor critic, told CBC News the majority of FedNor funding does work out.

But he noted there is definitely risk in economic development — particularly in the space flight industry.

That was something FedNor and the city's former MP Jay Aspin agreed on as well. 

"We've laid the foundation, and the door is open for further companies to come along," Aspin said.

"We in northern Ontario have to take some risks. We have to step out of the box," he said.

"Kudos to FedNor for taking a risk at that time. Kudos to any economic development organization that's willing to gamble a little bit in northern Ontario."

with files from Marina von Stackelberg. Edited and packaged by Wendy Bird.

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