Fort Frances population diminishing

Fort Frances is experiencing a population drain according to census information released Tuesday, and local officials cite lack of jobs and youth migration as the chief causes.
The population of Fort Frances has decreased 5.4 per cent over the last five years according to the 2001 census released by Statistics Canada.
While 8,790 people lived in Fort Frances in 1996, only 8,315 still lived here in May 2001.
By comparison, Canada’s national population increased 4 percent and the population of Ontario increased by 6.1 percent.
“The 5.4 was certainly higher than what any of us anticipated as a population change,” said Tannis Drysdale, president of the Northwest Ontario Associated Chambers of Commerce.
Drysdale said she was particularly concerned by the fact that while rural areas on average decreased .4 percent, this district experienced a 4.4 percent population dip.
“As a district, I think we have some questions to ask ourselves about why we are decreasing in population at a significantly higher rate than other rural areas of Canada,” she said.
She pointed out that lower population affects businesses that rely on local consumers. It also means a smaller tax base, leaving towns to decide to either cut services or raise taxes.
Gord McBride, chair of the Rainy River District School Board, said that if the shrinking population translates into fewer children, then local school boards could also suffer since they receive funds based on student enrollment.
“It just really means that the children we have remaining in the system are short changed,” he explained.
“For instance, in the next school year we’re already in a position where a school like Alberton has one teacher teaching triple grades. That’s the sort of thing that is reflected in lower income for boards.”
“It sends up a signal that we have to work harder,” Fort Frances Mayor Glenn Witherspoon said yesterday.
Witherspoon cited programs such as “Smart Growth” panel as ways to best address this concern.
“We know it’s a problem in the North, but we’re not unique, not by any means. Thunder Bay has this problem to a degree. Sudbury, Timmins,” he noted. “When you look at, it’s not perfect but we’re working to try to improve it.”
Witherspoon said that one of the reasons for the population drop is the migration of young people to urban centres.
“Retraining youth in the area is a big thing, and the only way they’ll stay is if we give them good jobs,” he said.
Ted DeBenetti, chair of the Business Improvement Area, agreed that there aren’t a lot of opportunities for youth in Fort Frances.
“If you don’t get into the mill, where do you go for your high paying job?” he asked.
DeBenetti said boosting tourism with groups such as “Re-Inventing fort Frances” is one way to solve the population drain.
“What we’ve got to do is try to create a better infrastructure in fort Frances to capitalize on tourism,” he said.
Drysdale said that bringing in call centres or exporting value-added wood products might also boost the economy and subsequently population numbers.
“It’s really time to stop talking about the potential of Northwestern Ontario and have our three levels of government and our citizens begin working together.”