Local sustainability focus of conference

Peggy Revell

Fort Frances is hosting the annual “Northern Networks” conference in September, with B.C. Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos band slated as the keynote speaker.
Set for Sept. 15-17, the conference will bring together economic development officers, elected officials, chambers of commerce, and business people from both sides of the border to “discuss opportunities, to network, and find strategic alliances,” noted local organizer Tannis Drysdale.
The event, which rotates throughout the region from year to year, typically attracts 100-150 delegates from Northwestern Ontario, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
“[It’s] sort of looking at where we, as small communities, and medium-sized cities like Duluth and Thunder Bay, fit in and how we can take advantage of our local attributes, or our local assets in terms of global trade in the global economy,” Drysdale explained, noting this year’s theme is “Local solutions for a sustainable future.”
This will be the third time the “Northern Networks” conference has been held in Fort Frances.
Drysdale added that Chief Louie has done “phenomenal things” to bring his community forward.
“One of the greatest ways to bring people forward, and certainly he recognizes this, is by empowering them—empowering them through jobs and economic prosperity,” she remarked.
“And we’re thrilled that he’s agreed to come and speak to us about the importance of partnerships, and the importance of growing communities through economic development.”
“We’re bringing him in to talk about the art of possible,” echoed Geoff Gillon, with the Rainy River Future Development Corp., pointing to how the Osoyoos band has gone from being a “have not” to creating an economy through many different projects, partnerships, and “forward thinking.”
In fact, the band is creating enough revenue from its business enterprises that it no longer is asking for money from the federal government.
“It’s kind of a parallel to Fort Frances or Northern Ontario,” Gillon explained. “[The Osoyoos band] . . . is an example of how they got together and they started working and they created an economy that made them a stronger community.
“So that’s why we’re bringing him here. To have him reflect on how they were able to do it out there, and how can we, as a region, look at what we have and maximize our strengths and work to create an economy.”
Other speakers, tours, and discussions during the conference will focus on such areas as “green” energy and local food, added Gillon, and “how they can work across this region of northern Minnesota, Northern Ontario, and northern Wisconsin.
“So what we’re trying to do is just discuss different opportunities, bring in different speakers, that can highlight what’s going on in those specific fields and get the delegates talking about what can happen,” he remarked.
For example, Gillon said the RRFDC currently is working on a study on the feasibility of grass pellets. But Rainy River District only has “so much grass,” he noted, meaning one solution would be to buy it from northern Minnesota.
“So that’s one of those things—cross-border ‘green’ initiatives.
“International Falls has been working on a gasification project, and they’ve been over talking to Fort Frances and communities over here as far as solid waste,” Gillon noted.
“If they get the gasification project, you can get Canadian waste going over there and satisfying [the demand].”
“Globally, energy is a big economic driver and locally we’re looking at a number of opportunities in the Rainy River District,” said Drysdale.
“One of the greatest examples is the biomass at the mill, being able to use former waste products and reduce energy costs there.
“There’s a lot of other opportunities and a lot of technology and exploration happening,” she added. “And we’ll have other speakers in to talk about some of the really cutting-edge things that might be a big part of our economy in the future there.”
Local food also is a focus, said Gillon, with the conference bringing in two speakers from Wisconsin and Minnesota to talk about what those areas have going in terms of farmers’ markets, as well as what kind of exchange in products there could be across the region.
While meat requires federal inspection, products such as corn, carrots, watermelon, squash, and other vegetables could be moved back and forth across the border, he noted.
“So that’s what we’re trying to stimulate,” Gillon stressed.
“Maybe there’s something where Wisconsin or Duluth—those places which are 200 miles south—things may ripen faster and our farmers’ market may be able to use their goods and vice-versa.”
Drysdale said another speaker lined up is from Sonoma Valley, who will be talking about a system they have set up there so that small local retailers can have premium cards like the larger big box stores and retailers do.
“They have a card like that, and a system and a network that a whole bunch of small independent retailers can use, so they can derive marketing information, provide value-added for their customers, and create loyalty,” she explained.
“And local can be in Northwestern Ontario, a huge place.
“So that’s another discussion we can have at the conference—use what is local to us and how would that technology apply.”
More information about other speakers twill be announced in following weeks, Drysdale added.
“I’ve attended two previous [‘Northern Networks’] meetings in Duluth and I was very impressed,” said Fort Frances Mayor Roy Avis.
“I do think it will open up the doors for Fort Frances, bringing these other municipalities—especially those from the Upper Midwest—to see how we operate not only for Fort Frances but for the district.
“How we operate, what do we do here, and what we can produce as far as our agriculture is concerned, and also what we’re doing as far as economic development is concerned.
“I think it’s good to exchange the ideas and by them coming up here, that will be a real asset for the community,” the mayor added.
Hosting “Northern Networks” is an opportunity for the district to showcase itself, agreed Drysdale, and also means more local people can benefit from the various experts coming in to speak than when the conference is held elsewhere.
“We’re really excited about the conference,” she enthused. “We think it’s going to be a wonderful time to showcase the Rendez-Vous, our hotels, our new waterfront, our farms and technology, as well as the really ‘can-do’ spirit of the Rainy River District.”
The conference’s agenda, registration forms, as well as information on accommodations are available at www.rrfdc.on.ca
While registration is for all three days, limited seating will be available for those just wanting to attend the Thursday luncheon to hear Chief Louie speak.