Rural task force visits town

A provincial task force with a mandate to consult with people in various rural communities stopped in Fort Frances on Monday morning.
Fort Frances was one of 14 stops the task force is making to rural communities across the province to gauge the needs and status of small-town Ontario.
Representatives from different areas, representing various aspects of the area’s rural community, were at the Red Dog Inn to discuss what’s needed to enable smaller communities to develop–and remove barriers hindering that progress.
Many of those on hand stressed the difference between rural economies and that of the more populated southeastern Ontario.
“It’s important that you draw that distinction between urban and rural tourism,” argued Donna Hanson, a member of the Northwestern Ontario Tourism Association (NWOTA).
Hanson expressed concern government restrictions, such as the recent axing of the spring bear hunt, are impeding–and possibly even harming area development.
“I’m more interested in maintaining the tourism industry, maintaining the wilderness, maintaining the jobs, because there isn’t any room to expand but there is room to erode,” Hanson stressed.
Others agreed the existing industry in Northwestern Ontario may have reached its peak and new avenues for development should be sought out. Local businessman Vic Davis suggested technology-based corporations should be established in the area.
“You want to increase our base population,” he argued. “It think the tourism industry is maxed out. We have to move to a more technological atmosphere.
“Couldn’t we have a small factory here that makes headlights or bulbs for headlights,” he suggested.
Other concerns voiced by a number of those at the meeting were:
•the migration of youth to the urban centres, where more lucrative job opportunities are available;
•the lack of telecommunications to rural areas, with some people still using party lines;
•the hurdle of running a business with provincial taxes such as the payroll tax;
•the lack of road maintenance; and
•a lack of investments within the communities.
“As a population, most of us invest our money somewhere else. There is no vehicle for us, as citizens, to invest in Northwestern Ontario unless it’s our own investments or angel investors,” said Geoff Gillon of the Rainy River Future Development Corp.
While suggestions and opinions ranged throughout the meeting, most of those participating seemed encouraged by the new task force–and hoped talks between provincial and rural reps continue.
“I would like to say I feel the majority of people in Northwestern Ontario remain positive. We have to build on our strengths,” said Fort Frances Mayor Glenn Witherspoon.
Three members of the provincial task force were at the meeting–Northumberland MPP Doug Galt, Simcoe North MPP Garfield Dunlop, and North York MPP Julia Munro.
“The problem is to quickly come up with a few [areas] we can work on,” said Munro.
After the meeting, Munro said a general concern that seems to reappear is the balance of development versus the social aspects that make rural Ontario unique.
“As I listen, collectively, it seems that one of the issues is trying to balance growth with the preservation of life that is here,” she noted.
“To me, it seems you have to be so careful that in the name of progress you don’t destroy what it is the people came here for.”
The task force will report to Finance minister Ernie Eves and later to Premier Mike Harris. The information from this first tour will be used to build the framework for further discussions on rural economic development.