The uncertainty that has loomed over the economic future of Thompson since Vale announced its plans to shut down its smelter and refinery come 2015 has also cast a shadow over the future of Thompson Unlimited, the city's economic development agency that was created in 2002 with $250,000 annually for 10 years from what was then Inco and is now Vale.
The funding agreement expires on Dec. 31 of this year and no extension or renewal has yet been announced.
Being in that limbo state is tough, says Thompson Unlimited general manager Mark Matiasek because you can't get involved in long-term projects if you don't know how much longer you'll be around.
It also impacts day-to-day operations.
Thompson Unlimited recently moved from its old headquarters on Selkirk Avenue to a new location on Moak Crescent, a move that was complicated by TU's uncertain future.
"We changed locations and we moved over the stuff, the staff back in March and we're going to be here until December anyways," Matiasek says. "We don't have a lease here. It was a challenge to work without a lease because landlords want leases and it's tough. We were lucky. The landlords here have been very accommodating and the staff likes it here and maybe if we have a chance, maybe we'll be staying. If our funding is renewed, I guess the board will make a decision again as to where we're going to be and we'll take it one day at a time in the sense of once we find out what is going to be happening to TU then the board will have to make a decision as to where we're going to be setting up our shop."
Whether TU's funding is renewed or not, Matiasek says it's vital, especially as Thompson's economy goes through a restructuring, that economic development work continues.
"We need to keep working on this in a long-term committed process with many partners," he says. "We've got a lot going of ourselves here. We've got a strong future. We have committed leadership in this community and we have regional involvement and it's growing in our affairs here. That speaks to our collective sustainability. I want Thompson Unlimited to continue taking part in that, continuing what we have started here."
Unfortunately for those employed in the profession, economic development is poorly understood and difficult to measure, Matiasek says, and when there are big successes it can condition people to expect those kind of results more and more often.
"GLACIER [the jet engine testing facility south of Thompson] was a home run," Matiaske says. We had a part in that. We're not solely responsible for that, not by any stretch of the imagination."
But as gratifying and important as being chosen as the site of that facility was, that's not what economic development is usually like.
"You don't go up to the plate and expect to hit a home run with each swing of the bat," Matiasek says. "If you hit one out of 10, that's a good batting average."
Sometimes, even when you do everything you can, a business decides not to open up, nor to base itself elsewhere. That's why Matiasek says Thompson Unlimited judges itself on the effort put in to economic development, not just the results.
"Measuring success of development is more than just how much new taxes were developed," he says. "It's way more than that and being able to measure it is one challenge. Success and accomplishments and bricks-and-mortar kind of results like that [Extended Stay] hotel, that is very important, too, don't get me wrong, but very, very important is effort. If there hadn't been an effort that would alarm me as a waste of resources dedicated to economic development. If the effort's not there, something is wrong and has to be changed. That has not been the case in this organization."
The creation of Thompson Unlimited was a proactive and progressive decision that was made at a time when Inco was looking at future cessation of all mining activity in Thompson, Matiasek says. Whether the organization continues to receive funding beyond this year, Matiasek says the important thing is that Thompson keeps looking to diversify its economy.
"It's never stopped and it won't stop," he says. "It can't stop."
Pointing to another local economic success that Thompson Unlimited played a role in developing, Matiasek mentions winter weather testing.
"Who would've thought you could make money off of cold weather/" he says. "That, in my mind, speaks about innovation and the type of investment we've been able to attract to this community. We've had a hand in that. We didn't do it, we had a hand in it. I see that need continuing."
For related story, see Page 7.