‘Northern Networks’ called learning experience

Whether it was making business contacts or touring the Wisconsin Dells, area delegates who attended the ninth-annual “Northern Networks” Trade Conference in Baraboo, Wis. last week found something they liked about the trip.
“I think the most enlightening thing for me was the way Wisconsin Dells was developed,” said Fort Frances Mayor Glenn Witherspoon, who was among the group of delegates from here who left for the conference last Tuesday and returned home Friday.
“The theme park, the indoor-outdoor activities—it was something to see,” he added. “It’s too bad there weren’t more people from local businesses who came out and saw them.”
Mayor Witherspoon, who has attended seven of the nine “Northern Networks” conferences, said it also was a good opportunity to promote next year’s conference, which will be held in Fort Frances for the second time.
The mayor officially invited those attending last week’s conference to come here during a breakfast sponsored by the Town of Fort Frances on Friday, and said he learned a thing or two about putting on next year’s event.
“In previous years, we’ve seen the emphasis on economic development and different levels of government working to cut through red tape,” he noted.
“We’re going to swing back to theme of networking and bringing entrepreneurs together.”
Fort Frances CAO Bill Naturkach noted much of the program last week was dedicated to First Nations interests—whether they be tourism, trade, or governmental issues—as the conference was co-hosted by the Ho-Chunk Nation.
“I was really attentive to those,” he said. “Co-operation with First Nations is a factor in our area we hadn’t looked into really until our proposal to get a youth facility with Couchiching First Nation.
“But I learned what’s good for a First Nation is good for its neighbouring municipality,” Naturkach added. “I anticipate we’re going to keep this in mind when we host it here next year.
“And for the record, I can say we’re planning to do a bang-up job since it’s [also] our centennial year.”
Dale Kaemingh, co-owner and general manager of Manitou Forest Products, said the trip was “interesting.”
“We did a little bit of networking,” he noted. “There was a fellow that had a booth with knick-knacks made of wood, and he was interested in doing work with wood we deal in, like red pine and northern cedar.
“It was a potential sale there.
“It was good to drive down there and visit some clients I do business with, and some I plan to do business with,” Kaemingh added.
“I also spoke a little on partnerships with First Nations in business, how we started, and how we’re doing,” he remarked. “Of course, the whole conference was built around this idea of partnerships.”
From his point of view, Kaemingh said, the only downside of the conference was that most of the people there were municipal reps and economic development officers as opposed to actual business owners like himself.
“I enjoyed learning about destination tourism,” said Angela Halvorsen, business investment officer with the Rainy River Future Development Corp. here
“The hotel we were staying at was close to the Wisconsin Dells and some of us went on a tour there,” she added.
Halvorsen agreed the conference is a good opportunity for area business owners to make connections south of the border.
“For instance, we export products there. but maybe we can find some components that we can import here,” she said. “It’s all about networking, meeting other people, and how they do business.”
Bruce Caldwell, who sits on the town’s Economic Development Advisory Committee, said it was difficult to pick out just one aspect of the conference to talk about.
“The area itself is quite appealing, and I was surprised to find out I knew one of the instigators down there,” he remarked, referring to Tommy Bartlett, who runs a nightly water show at the Dells.
“It’s definitely about destination tourism,” he stressed. “During the peak season, they’re seeing 50,000 beds a night. They have waterslides, go-karts, skateboarding.
“After seeing the skate park down there, and seeing the one we had here during the bass tournament at the arena, it’s clear it’s a real plus to the kids,” said Caldwell.
“If they could build one here, with a roof over it, it could be used pretty much year-round,” he noted. “It would be a great boon to a lot of the kids.”
Other area delegates attending the conference were local economic development officer Geoff Gillon, Rainy River First Nations Chief Gary Medicine, and Eugene McPherson of Couchiching First Nation.
The region also was represented by delegates from Thunder Bay, Dryden, and Kenora.