New ideas, attitude needed: merchants
It’s clear new ideas—and a new, more positive attitude—are among the things needed to revitalize Fort Frances in the wake of last year’s mill layoffs and in anticipation of a future that no longer can rely on a single industry.
This was the message conveyed last Thursday night when 30-plus members of the Downtown BIA and Fort Frances Chamber of Commerce met at La Place Rendez-Vous to brainstorm ideas to improve commerce in town and the surrounding area.
“We’ve got to move ’em, we got to shake ’em, because . . . they’ve been relying on this one horse all this time, and now this horse is dying,” he warned.
“We should have been doing this years ago.
“I look around the room and I see a few people that have kids. I’ve got kids,” Tullio added. “It’s not just about the dollar I make today. I want my kids, if they want to have a future here, to have Fort Frances.
“I don’t care what direction it is as long as it’s positive,” he stressed. “What I’d like to see is a few ideas come out of tonight that we can move towards.”
Doug Anderson of Betty’s said the downtown area has faced dire challenges in the past but was able to make it through them, and businesses and other groups can band together to make anything happen.
In the early 1990s, the loonie went high for the first time and cross-border shopping was rampant. Anderson recalled walking with down Scott Street with Julian Morelli and the 100, 200, and 300 blocks were at 75 percent vacancy.
“It looked like a war zone,” he recalled, noting that this resulted in an initiative called “Project Pride,” which included banners stating, “Fort Frances proudly welcomes you!”
And it actually boosted business.
Shortly after the introduction of “safety bucks” at the local mill, Anderson and a small group of others got together to focus on safety in Rainy River District.
It started with a safety checklist distributed across the region that eventually led to Fort Frances hosting a World Health Organization conference, which drew 400 delegates from across the world and made Rainy River District a “safe community.”
This showed that with the right people and right attitude, anything can be achieved.
“Hopefully, we’re going to have more meetings like this and get more involvement with the business community,” said Chamber president Mark Caron of M.L. Caron Electric.
“We’re just looking at different ideas, whether it is the Scott Street sector or the Chamber of Commerce.
“We’re not trying to draw a line here,” he stressed. “We’re trying to work together to improve business in Fort Frances, to make it enticing for other businesses to come to Fort Frances.
“Like Doug said, ‘community pride,’” Caron added. “There’s a lot of things that have changed over the years and it’s time to revitalize that.
“That’s why we’re here today—to get ideas, open discussion.”
“This is a really good start,” enthused Cathy Emes of NCDS. “It’s something we’ve been trying to do for years, and it’s gratifying to see this many people.
“We’re not a mill town anymore—that’s behind us and we’re going to quit talking about what is behind us and talk about what is ahead of us,” she reasoned.
“Having a positive attitude is going to make a big difference.”
Tullio said capturing more of the traffic that comes over the border is important, adding that if Las Vegas could be built in the middle of the desert, why can’t something be built here?
He added small towns like Ely, Mn. can draw people, so why can’t Fort Frances? While events like the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship are good, the area needs a permanent draw.
Dale Fortes of Boston Pizza said 400,000 people cross the border here every year, and the business community has to figure out a way to capture some of that.
“We have to approach it together and it has to be something that we’re all a part of,” he remarked.
Travis Glowasky of Studio Gibbous noted that Bemidji and Ely have exploded in recent years.
“But what is that they have focused on? A lot of it has been family-oriented,” he noted. “Trying to draw in families.
“What do we have around here that draws in families?” he asked.
“Nothing,” countered Deb Emes of 93.1 The Border.
When talk of whether or not the town should pursue a casino came up, many of those attending last week’s meeting felt it was a good idea.
Caron said he recently went to Fortune Bay casino but the trip was more about getting away than gambling, and while there, his wife also shopped.
“It’s an attractant to bring people to the area,” he noted.
“They’re not going to sit in that casino,” Caron added. “It’s a destination and then they can leave from there and see what Fort Frances has to offer.”
Tullio said he’s been chatting about the topic with customers at his salon and people seem to be split 50/50. While some are concerned about a casino fuelling gambling addictions, he noted the reasoning is faulty—like saying bars and liquor stores create alcoholics.
“I personally like the idea of a casino,” he remarked. “People are leaving here every weekend anyway.”
“I love it,” echoed Deb Emes, adding that if there were a casino with a water park in it, “you would see spin-off like you would not believe.”
“Not only do you drive people here, but you need people to work and well-trained people, so now you have spin-off from your training,” she argued.
“And then we have spin-off from other businesses that need to be created.
“It creates an excitement—I see far many more pluses that I do negatives,” Emes added.
Others chimed in that if a casino were to open here, it is imperative there be a family element to it.
George Emes noted tourism is a piece of the puzzle, but it only makes up for 15-20 percent of the area’s potential.
“We need commerce, we need business, we need industry,” he stressed. “We need partnerships, we need people like yourselves to leave here and think about what we can do as a district, not just Fort Frances.
“Because everything that happens between Mine Centre and Rainy River affects Fort Frances.”
Emes noted there’s lots going on that not everyone is aware of, such as programs being applied for to get funding for research and development and to pay for consultants to work on projects.
“If you’ve got an idea, talk to a neighbour, talk to a buddy,” he urged.
“Partnerships are wonderful. Partnerships don’t have to be just groups, they can be two or three businessmen getting together.
“There is a lot of business that that’s how they started,” Emes added. “Everybody threw a few bucks in the pot.”
Tullio admitted sometimes businesses and individuals focus too much on how “the grass is growing in [their] backyard.”
“That can’t happen any more,” he warned. “We all got the same backyard.”
Several people also said they would like to see more events, such as a large-scale minor hockey tournament or cross-country skiing competition, come here and give a big boost to businesses.
Improving customer service, how to bring young people back to the community, starting a small business, and how businesses need to market themselves to mining companies also were topics broached at the meeting.
Fort Frances Coun. John Albanese agreed everyone has to start thinking positive.
“The only way we’re going to get ahead of the game is to start thinking positive and start doing something about it . . . that’s the only way we’re going to get ahead,” he stressed.
He noted the spirit of volunteerism in the community has to be “sparked again.”
“The 7,000-8,000 people we have in the Town of Fort Frances—let’s capture the volunteerism, let’s promote volunteerism,” Coun. Albanese said.
“But if they hear the negative part of what we are discussing, nobody is going to say, ‘I am going to volunteer for the BIA or Chamber of Commerce or anybody else.’”
Fortes said last Thursday’s meeting was a good starting point and the more fresh ideas they can get, the better, including asking high school students what they think.
He said the BIA, Chamber, and town council have to be aligned and move forward together, adding the public also has to be involved.
Fortes said the community lacks a vision and creating an identity will help create a place where people will want to stop.
“Whether we are the wolf capital of the world or the canoe capital of the world, what are we and how do we become that?” he wondered.
The groups will meet again in a month and this time be joined by a third party—the International Falls Chamber of Commerce, which has expressed interest in working together with businesses on this side of the border.