Thunder Bay·Up North

Atikokan looks to small business to boost its economy

One community in northwestern Ontario is pinning its hopes on small business to bring it more economic prosperity.

At one time, Atikokan had nearly 8,000 residents, but the 2011 census puts the population at 2,700

Atikokan's Lois Fenton, Gord Knowles, Chris Stromberg and Katie Hannon stand in the centre of Main Street in the middle of the afternoon. Only one car went by — an indication of just how quiet the northwestern Ontario community has become. (Jeff Walters/CBC)
One community in the northwest feels its in the cusp of changing its economy, but it's taken years to get this far. We'll hear from the CBC's Jeff Walters, who is on the road again for us 9:30

One community in northwestern Ontario is pinning its hopes on small business to bring it more economic prosperity.

Atikokan has struggled for many years, particularly since two large iron mines shut down four decades ago.

The town is a far cry from its heydey in the 1960s, when the population was more than twice what it is now, and two mines employed thousands.

But, the town's economic development advisor Gord Knowles feels the community is turning the page.

"I see opportunity. I see … places that, at one point, had success, and they're [now] a blank canvas for anyone to get a business going that's to their niche and to their specialty," he said.

"So, to me, that's exciting."
Spencer Meany of Atikokan's XY Paddle Company says many in the area have finally realized that it's small businesses, and not a large factory, that will help the community survive. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

Atikokan 'has to change'

Spencer Meany, who runs the XY Paddle Company — started by his father more than 40 years ago — says every business, no matter how small, contributes to economic prosperity.

"Traditionally, you know, it's a blue collar town — mining and forestry and stuff," he said.

"But, in order for sustainability, it has to change. You can't wait for the next mine or for the next logging company to keep us afloat."

The curator of Atikokan Centennial Museum noted the 1960s were a heyday of sorts for the town.

"That was Atikokan's decade, when the town absolutely blossomed," Lois Fenton said.

"It blossomed in population, and all of the sideline things that happened with development of industry, and the community spirit is still here."

It is hoped that same community spirit will invigorate the small business sector — and Meany said many in the area have finally realized that it's small businesses, and not a large factory, that will help the community survive.

Wayne Docking in the repair shop at Souris River Canoes. He's in charge of sales and transportation — he spends about 3 months making deliveries mainly to Southern Ontario and the U.S. — but he also does repairs. He was a teacher at Atikokan High School for years. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

Paddling to economic sustainability?

At one time, Atikokan had nearly 8,000 residents, but the 2011 census puts the population at 2,700, and declining.

Major employers in the area include an Ontario Power Generation plant, the Rentech wood pellet plant and Resolute sawmill. Resolute is located outside Atikokan, and not all employees live in Atikokan

Economically, the town has been through a lot — with promised new mines (Hammond Reef, Bending Lake Iron) that never materialized, as well as sawmill shutdowns, such as Atikokan Forest Products.

Canoes may be the key to the future in Atikokan. A long-time canoe making business, Souris River Canoes, may be the key to the long term success in the community. 7:34

One small business is betting that canoes may be the key to the future of Atikokan.

Souris River Canoes is aiming to capitalize on the community's remote location and access to the wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park to bring economic prosperity back to Atikokan.

About a half-dozen employees do everything from sales to transportation, and even canoe repairs, at the plant.

The canoe business is being used by some in the community as an example of small firms that help create stability for the economy in Atikokan.

Atikokan canoe builder Warren Paulsen does all of the finishing touches at Souris River Canoes. He also puts in the seats, gunnels and any other features. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

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