After facing one of the toughest budget years ever in 2017, Mayor Roy Avis said the outlook for the Town of Fort Frances in 2018 is much rosier.
“In 2018, we are poised in Fort Frances to have a very, very good year,” he told the Times in an interview Friday.
For starters, the 2018 budget process will be less harrowing than last year due to a nearly $2-million increase in assessment.
“2017 started off with a real issue for council, with the declining assessment in the community,” he noted.
“That was a tremendous challenge for council to try and balance a budget in a reasonable manner.
“And I think we were able to do that in a very good manner, in that we were able to maintain a 1.5 percent tax increase on average across the community,” he added.
The reassessment done by the provincial Municipal Property Assessment Corp. saw a nearly $13-million loss of assessment in commercial and residential properties here last year.
On top of that, some property owners saw their property values either increase or decrease.
In sharp contrast to that, Mayor Avis said he’s looked at the 2018 tax roll the town has just received and it looks like there will be an assessment increase of about $2 million this year–much of it in the commercial sector.
The reasons for this include new construction and reconstruction, as well as MPAC responding to the town’s feedback it provided last year after the shocking assessment loss, he noted.
What’s more, Mayor Avis expects the town’s assessment to increase over the next three or four years as MPAC makes further adjustments.
As in other years, Mayor Avis said council will have a fair approach to the 2018 budget, trying to “reach out to all parts of the community” and reflect different interests–from the arena to the museum to the seniors’ centre–all the while being mindful of aging infrastructure likes roads and sewer and water pipes.
While able to completely rebuild a portion of Nelson Street and the 200 block of Second Street East last year, Mayor Avis said the town has more “shelf ready” road construction projects it would like to do–most notably Scott Street from Reid Avenue to Colonization Road East, the 1200 block of Third Street East, and a section of Colonization Road West.
The only hold-up is waiting on the provincial government.
Mayor Avis stressed the province is providing the town with little or no “Connecting Link” funding–dollars earmarked for municipalities to repair and replace roads and bridges that run through communities and connect to provincial highways.
Much of the economy of Northwestern Ontario relies on traffic coming through Fort Frances to cross the border, and considering the extra wear and tear on local roads due to traffic going to and from the mine, the town hasn’t been getting its fair amount, he reasoned.
“We have seven kilometres of ‘Connecting Link’ roads in the community, and the government should have the responsibility to help us maintain those,” the mayor stressed, noting council has been frugal over the years–saving up money to help pay for the town’s share of road repairs.
It now just needs the province to provide its share.
The town also continues to work on its asset management plan for the community, which will help guide council in determining which of its assets needs to be repaired or replaced sooner than later.
One highlight of 2017 was construction of the Rainy Lake Square.
Mayor Avis noted most of the work has been completed on it, with just a few finishing touches to be added this spring, at which time there will be an official opening.
He added the well-received “Rainy Lake 150” series of concerts this past fall were a good state of what the community will be able to enjoy in the future at the square.
“That’s a real addition to our downtown area,” Mayor Avis remarked. “I think it will be utilized quite a bit.
“We just hope it can be maintained to the level it should be because it is the focal point of our downtown area.”
Likewise, Mayor Avis was thrilled to see the completion of the multi-use courts built near the high school.
“There was a good group of citizens that brought that forward to council,” he noted.
“Council supported that project, as did the school boards, and it’s a very good addition to our community.”
Mayor Avis stressed volunteers mobilizing to raise funds to build the multi-use courts or to organize Canada Day activities, citing just two examples, indicate a positive direction he would like to see continue this year.
“This community is getting together and trying to enhance areas that should be enhanced,” he remarked.
Looking to the forestry sector, and the shuttered pulp and paper mill here, Mayor Avis said the town will continue to provide input regarding the new enhanced Sustainable Forest Licence (eSFL) program that will take effect in 2020.
It even has hired a consultant to ensure the town “gets the best bang for its buck.”
He noted the new system will provide municipalities within the district more say in guaranteeing a local wood supply into the future.
As for the mill here, Mayor Avis said he’s heard no updates regarding its future.
“There’s been lots of rumours but there’s been no positive response to any communications we’ve had with Resolute,” he admitted.
“All we can do is continue and hope that we have support of the governments in going forward to try and get something to happen with that facility in Fort Frances.”
While the New Gold mine no doubt has provided an economic boon to Fort Frances and the surrounding district, Mayor Avis said now that the mine is in production mode, more long-term benefits will become evident.
For instance, many of the people hired in the construction phase came here from elsewhere, lived in camps, and have moved on.
But now that the mine is up and running, new faces have come to live and work here.
“Those people are going to be staying in the district or in Fort Frances,” the mayor said. “I think the economic spin-off is going to be huge in years to come.
“As we go forward, we have to build and watch for that.”
In regards to housing, all but one of the lots at Huffman Court have been sold. And in the past year, council considered developing the Erin Crescent subdivision, which would consist of 27 lots of varying sizes in the northeast part of town.
Mayor Avis noted council ultimately decided to wait on the latter, adding “it was just a little too premature.”
He said he would like to see all of the Huffman lots sold, and more homes built there, before the town invests more than $1 million into the ground at Erin Crescent and then takes a gamble on whether or not the lots–which likely will be sold at a higher price than those at Huffman Court–will move.
“You’ve got to balance that ball,” the mayor stressed.
“I’m in business, I’m a little cautious,” he noted. “I can smell a buck down the road but I think we’re a little too premature to start that.”
Meanwhile, with seniors comprising a greater percentage of the population every year, Mayor Avis said council recognizes the need for more seniors’ independent housing here, adding “some level of participation should be considered by council.”
He added the seniors’ housing issue, and the availability of housing for everyone else, are interrelated.
“If we were to see some major seniors’ housing projects, that would open up a lot of homes in the community that would be for sale,” he reasoned.
Mayor Avis also hopes negotiations regarding the Agency One land (Point Park) will be resolved in a manner satisfactory to all parties in the year ahead.
The doctor shortage also remains an issue here and recruitment efforts will continue.
The town has been contributing $67,000 annually to this effort, and Mayor Avis said he would like to see additional financial support from other district municipalities and area First Nations–as not just Fort Frances residents benefit from having physicians.
Looking ahead to late 2018, Fort Frances, along with every other community in Ontario, will be having a municipal election.
Mayor Avis, who is starting his 12th year as mayor, said he’s undecided as to whether he will run again.
“It depends on my health,” he revealed. “I enjoy my job and therefore would consider staying, but in the last eight or 10 months, it’s been pretty trying at times.
“Going forward, it’s pretty early to say,” he added.
“But I do have to say I’ve have a pretty good council that I’ve worked with over the last 11 years as mayor.”