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Little change since Flin Flon’s closure

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Citizen photo courtesy of HudBay Minerals Inc.

HudBay Minerals Inc. closed its copper smelter in Flin Flon last June, eliminating 225 jobs.

Thompson need not look far to see an example of what effects a smelter closure can have on a Northern Manitoba mining community, as Flin Flon experienced one just this past summer, when HudBay Minerals Inc. shut down that city's copper smelter, which had employed more than 200 people.

The good news is, it hasn't sent that city's economy into a tailspin, though city officials say the ramifications may surface in years to come.

"It's a situation where the transition has been relatively smooth," says Mark Kolt, the City of Flin Flon's municipal administrator, thanks mostly to the fact that HudBay operations are in expansion elsewhere and many of the affected workers have found other job opportunities.

After 70 years in operation, the Flin Flon smelter closed in June, slightly ahead of the July 2010 date that HudBay predicted when it announced the closure about a year earlier. But even as that date approached and arrived and passed, the economic effects were subtle or non-existent, at least when it came to real estate.

"We really couldn't put our finger on anything that negatively impacted real estate," said Cheryl Hordal of Nordmark Realty in Flin Flon, referring to the period from just before the shutdown to October. "We didn't so much as feel a hiccup."

Lately, though, business has slowed down slightly, but Hordal isn't sure if that's because of the closure or just a normal periodic slowdown. Twenty years ago, the Flin Flon real estate market had a tendency to dry up in the winter, but she hasn't seen a seasonal marketplace for the last 10 to 12 years, since unions and HudBay signed a labour peace pact.

Similarly, Joe Buie, president of the Flin Flon & District chamber of Commerce, says it’s difficult to say so far if the smelter closing has had any measurable economic effect.

Buie, who works as an economics/business development officer with Community Futures Greenstone, saw little impact on the number of people entering the organization's self-employment program for people receiving Employment Insurance benefits.

"I didn't really see a big intake this time," he said, apart from one ex-smelter employee who then moved on to a new job in Snow Lake. "I haven't seen a lot of people coming through our office."

"It didn't seem to affect business too much," he said, noting that many of the former smelter workers were shifted into different locations within HudBay. "We haven't had anybody from the retail sector that indicated they're really hurting. "

That doesn't mean that all is clear on the horizon, however.

"There's nothing to compare it to yet," said Buie, though the coming Christmas shopping season may give a better indication of how the local economy's doing - or how residents feel about their future. "Maybe after Christmas we'll have a better perspective on it. I'd like to wait for a full year to see what impact it has on the community."

Buie also says there may be more of a cumulative effect in the future, when the Trout Lake mine closes, which is scheduled to take place in about 18 months.

"I think we're going to see the effect when the Trout Lake mine shuts down," he said.

Flin Flon Mayor George Fontaine, who won the top spot in city politics in the Oct. 27 election and served as a city councillor prior to that, expects the closure's effects on the city to come further down the line, with fewer residents to tax to support city services.

"It's not something that's rapid," said Fontaine, who says it's important for Flin Flon to do what Thompson Unlimited was created to do in the Nickel City - expand the economy beyond mining. "We'll also be looking to diversify."

Kolt says that there will be consequences for Flin Flon's future tax base from the closure, but their extent depends on what people decide to do.

"Obviously, the pie has become somewhat smaller," he said. "Some of our people may stay and retire here."

If they do, the tax base won't shrink immediately, though having retirees doesn't offer the same long-term stability that having 25 or 30-year-old mining employees does. Hard data on where Flin Flon's population is headed isn't immediately available.

"We have to wait for the census," Kolt says. "There's always reason to hope things might turn out."

Both Kolt and the mayor say HudBay deserves some credit for making the closure as painless as possible and doing what it could to make sure former smelter employees were taken care of.

"The city of Thompson has our sympathies," says Fontaine. "It's not an easy thing to go through."

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