That will happen in 2019 when Vale’s smelter and refinery closes isn’t the quite elephant in the room when it comes to conversations about the future of Thompson, because it is a fact that is acknowledged and talked about. It is, however, an unknown quantity because it’s impossible to say for certain what the effect of losing about a third of the company’s current workforce will be in areas including the real estate market, the retail sector and municipal government revenues, other than to admit that it’s not going to be a positive one.
As Mayor Dennis Fenske noted at a pre-budget consultation Dec. 5, this isn’t the first time that the company has scaled back operations. In fact, the current number of Vale employees is only about a third of what it had back in 1975 and clearly that drastic reduction, which occurred in smaller increments over a number of years and even decades unlike the cutback that looms a couple of years ahead, hasn’t been the death of Thompson. One needn’t look all that far afield to see communities like Lynn Lake and Leaf Rapids, where mines that were once the main employers and which, at their peaks, employed a much higher proportion of the local population than Vale does in Thompson right now, shut down entirely. The good news is the towns in which they were once the most important employers survived their withdrawal. The bad news is, they haven’t exactly thrived in the ensuing years. The effect of the closure on Thompson will be less than the shutting down of grain shipping in Churchill, where the port employed the equivalent of about 10 per cent of the town’s population, but it will be significant, in the neighbourhood of three or four per cent of Thompson’s total population.
The good news for Thompson, in comparison with how things unfolded in Churchill, is that the city has had about six years since the closure was announced in 2010 to prepare for the post-smelting and refining era, with two more still to come. The bad news is the only way to replace 500 high-paying jobs is by creating 500 new high-paying jobs and there isn’t evidence to suggest that the community has been able to do so. In fact, since the closure was announced, several stores have shut down and some of the spaces they used to occupy, like the former home of Rogers Video next to Shoppers’ Drug Mart and the old Staples building on the corner of Thompson Drive and Mystery Lake Road, are still empty as much as five years after their former tenants moved out, though the one-time Staples building was occupied briefly by a new business in town, the short-lived Aaron’s Furniture. The former Ilios restaurant is now the home of the Great Canadian Dollar Store, but it sat empty for many years and there are a number of spaces inside the City Centre Mall, like those that used to be Bootlegger and Reitman’s and Cruisin’ Chicken, that have yet to be leased out to new tenants.
Ten years ago, Thompson was booming thanks to record-high nickel prices and the problem was trying to find somewhere for people to live. These days, houses can sit on the market for months on end with perhaps as few as 12.5 per cent of those for sale actually changing hands in the course of a year.
As City Centre Mall manager Keith MacDonald said at the pre-budget consultation, council has a lot of difficult choices to make in the next couple of years. Fenkse noted that council has been in that position for pretty much the entirety of the past two terms. It doesn’t appear that there are easier times ahead, not for the people in charge of municipal government nor for the residents they represent.