Mark Matiasek is in the business of optimism as a necessity for survival.
It pretty much goes with the territory when you’re general manager 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. The funding agreement expires on Dec. 31 and no extension or renewal has yet been announced with just over five months remaining.
Add into the mix Thompson has lost four national retail chains since last September, most recently Loblaw’s Extra Foods grocery store, and the fact Matiasek came to Thompson four years ago to take the Thompson Unlimited job after being the chief administrative officer in Lynn Lake, where mining ended in December 2001, and you can see why he needs to be a resilient optimist.
Thompson Unlimited was established a decade ago based on a simple premise: diversification in the face of the end of nickel. At the time, Inco, which had set the wheels in motion with a formal legal notice of mine closure, announced funding for Thompson Unlimited to assist with diversifying the economy in Thompson for the post-mining era. In some important ways – such as the Global Aerospace Centre for Icing and Environmental Research (GLACIER), near Ospwagan Lake, just south of Thompson, and the new University College of the North campus to open in Thompson next year – that diversification is happening.
And mining, as it has turned out, is not coming to an end anytime soon. Underground mining operations at T-1, T-3 and Birchtree mines are slated to continue. Lovro Paulic, general manager for the smelter and refinery at Vale’s Manitoba Operations here, said June 7 Vale’s mining plan for Thompson currently runs for another 28 years through 2040. That’s the good news.
The bad news is all surface operations in the smelter and refinery are closing in 2015.
While new underground mining possibilities exist if either or both the 1-D and Pipe-Kipper projects should come to fruition, and Tito Martins, former chief executive officer of Vale Canada and executive director of base metals, saying in 2010 Vale plans to invest more than $1 billion extending the life of the mines in Thompson and introducing new sources of ore, to date no new major capital investment related to those projects have been announced. And until it is the economic future of Thompson remains more or less frozen in time – specifically, Nov. 17, 2010 – the date Vale announced the refinery and smelter would close.
This is the very tough backdrop Matiasek and Thompson Unlimited are really working against. The reality is there are not a lot of private investors looking to put their working capital into Thompson right now.
There are, of course, some notable exceptions such as Hekuran Vlahna moving his Sears store last month to a larger location at 117 Commercial Place from the Thompson Plaza. Likewise, Yellowknife developer Tony Chang’s Best Western Hotel is now open, Dominos Pizza opened a store here last year, and Angelo Paletta’s Winnipeg-based Accommodations North Suburban Extended Stay Hotel on Moak Crescent opened. Both hotels, however, were well along in development and capital outlay at the time of Vale’s November 2010 closure announcement regarding the smelter and refinery.
Being in a state of limbo is tough, says 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 their 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."