Looking back over the past year, Thompsonites might get the feeling that their city is in a downward economic spiral, having lost four retail chains – most recently Extra Foods, which shut its doors for good last month. Go back a little further, to Vale's November 2010 announcement that it would close its smelter and refinery in 2015, and it's tempting to see these closures as dominoes, a sign that the good economic times in Thompson are coming to an end.
But, according to Mark Matiasek, general manager of Thompson Unlimited, the economic development agency created in 2002 with $2.5 million in funding from Vale spread over 10 years, that's not an accurate assessment.
"There's been a number of businesses that have left town for various reasons and I think it's very important that it's understood by the community the reasons why they're closing," he said in a recent interview with the Thompson Citizen, pointing out that the closures of Blockbuster Video and Rogers Plus were less about the local economy than about forces beyond Thompson's control, such as a major consumer shift towards digital entertainment.
"Blockbuster was a bankruptcy and it closed from legal proceedings going through the bankruptcy process and whether it was still profitable here in town or not, the fact remains is it was a decision of the court," Matiasek said.
As for Rogers Plus, that was a case of a company sacrificing one division to promote the growth of another.
"Rogers came up her introducing new technology, a bit of a competitor to MTS, and that gave consumers in town choice and I think that was a good thing from the point of consumers," says Matiasek. "Rogers made a corporate decision to expand in this field of work, meaning the Internet technologies, and in doing so they had to make a business decision as to other things that have impacted their business, meaning the Rogers Video store. So they made the corporate decision across Canada to close them and I understand that Rogers, the store here, was one of the last ones that were shut and I'm sure it was profitable still, too, just like the Blockbuster. Unfortunately those corporate decisions are made."
Movie buffs may be able to get their fix online, but the situation is more serious when it comes to the closure of a supermarket, Matiasek admits.
"That's very serious in my mind as to a grocery store in Thompson that is used not only by locals but from the region too in something as important as groceries," he said. "That's going to be a priority of Thompson Unlimited to look at trying to attract another grocery store to Thompson serving Thompson and the region. We have to prioritize our resources towards matching the needs, highest needs and I can assure you a grocery store is right up there."
Investment is still a two-way street, and Matiasek notes that at the same time that some businesses have been closing down, others are opening up.
"There's been some new business investment in the community over the years – the hotels, GLACIER, Domino's," he says. "There's been talk of another restaurant opening up just right beside the Extended Stay. The ownership group there has been working hard in developing a business plan and assembling financing to develop a new restaurant and then the old Headframe, too. I know they've been having their challenges with the building and with the ownership group there surrounding financing. It's not easy to cobble together several hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe even more than a million, to do new builds or to renovate existing properties but I know that there's the interest there with doing some stuff related to food service in the community."
Still, there's no denying that Vale's decision to close its smelter and refinery have negatively affected Thompson's economy.
"It clearly cooled some ideas that had been percolating and doing some investment in the community," says Matiasek. "I can say that from my own experience. But there's still been some business that have seen fit to continue moving forward and I commend them and I also think that Thompson has still a future of mining and I think that patience is very important to have alongside optimism as we move forward now and in the immediate future. I think that Thompson is going to be rebounding back to a point where there's going to be people calling me and asking me, you know, I've got this idea, Mark, of starting this and doing that in Thompson, what do you think? I think that in the near future those sorts of phone calls will become more common in my day and I think that this is perhaps just a little bit of a lull in a period of time of the economic life of Thompson."
Matiasek can appreciate the anxiety some people in Thompson feel about the future when businesses move out of town and plans to contract mining-related operations are revealed. Thompson Unlimited was created in 2002 to help diversify Thompson's economy in advance of the anticipated closure of all of Inco's Manitoba Operations. Prior to joining the organization, Matiasek worked in economic development in Lynn Lake, one of several Northern Manitoba towns that saw their economic futures grow dimmer when local mining operations closed.
"I think that what happened in some of the regional communities, mining towns, when their mines closed, I think instilled fear locally here as to what could happen, what is happening," Matiasek says. "I think that wrong. I think it's flawed. Thompson's a very different community. We have, quoting the last census, 13,000 people, I think it's closer to 15 [thousand] maybe, maybe even more. That's substantially larger. We have a University College of the North that isn't just being talked about anymore, it's being built. We're going to become, slowly, a regional centre for education, that regional centre you can put alongside government services, you can put alongside healthcare, you can put it alongside retail. We are a regional centre. Our size matters because it's the businesses that have ben able to be developed because of the number of people here. We're working at trying to grow this community as a regional service centre such that we're able to attract and/or develop new things in this town that would serve a population much larger than the 15,000 people we have, you know what I mean, by focusing on the region."
It's important, he says, the Thompsonites take a balanced view of where the city is headed.
"It's not all doom and gloom," he says. "I ask for people to just have the faith and confidence now and into our future, maintain perspective and understand better some of the things that are happening and why. We cannot get too focused or start believing things that are coming from a relatively small group as to how limited we are economically and the things that are happening with store closures and the announcement of the smelter and the refinery closing. Those are facts that that has happened. There needs to be a deeper understanding of the reason why those things are happening. I don't want to see businesses close because of that fallacy that Thompson's going to hell. It's not going to hell. I don't want people leaving because of fear of losing their job. We're still short. Vale's still short 100, 150 jobs. Go ask one of the restaurants whether they could use some people. There's still job opportunities here. We need to be optimistic despite everything, of our future and not kind of eat our own. Thompson's going to be around in one form or another. Mining's going to still be a very important part to the economy. I think that Thompson now is more diversified than we were 10 years ago. I think that the work Thompson Unlimited has done has contributed to help diversify the economy and I think Thompson Unlimited's still going to be a contributor, alongside many others, in helping facilitate and helping kind of pull things together with others in shaping Thompson's future."