Editorial: A year after smelter/refinery closure, Thompson worse for wear but not down for the count

About a year ago at this time, Thompson was awaiting the last round of layoffs from Vale’s Manitoba Operations and approaching the end of an era as nickel mining operations in Thompson, for the first time in their history, prepared to move from a fully integrated model that took nickel from the ground and refined it into its final product, to a mining-and-milling model, in which ore would be extracted and milled and then shipped off to Sudbury, Ont. for smelting and refining.

At the time, many people were – justifiably – concerned about what this change might mean for Thompson. Looking back, the transition has been hard, especially for those who lost their jobs, but Thompson is not on the ropes economically, at least not yet, though the local economy has absorbed some pretty heavy body blows as a result of Vale shrinking its Thompson operations.

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On the bright side, layoffs resulting from the transition were often lower than the company initially predicted. Fewer people losing their jobs meant fewer people leaving town and more money continuing to circulate through the Thompson economy. And certainly there have been good signs in Thompson since smelting and refining operations came to end in July of last year. We have seen McDonald’s franchise owner and operator Brett O’Meara put his money where his mouth is and invest a lot of it in tearing down his old store and rebuilding a new one. Similarly, Walmart has greatly expanded the grocery items it offers by renovating to become a Supercentre, an indication that that company believes the foundation underpinning the Thompson retail economy, at the very least, is still solid. That area of town will soon see a bigger Liquor Marts open for business. Things along Mystery Lake Road are looking not so bad.

On the other hand, long-time businesses like Don Johnson Jewellers, Myleen’s Treasure, Mystery Lake Body Shop, All-Season Parts and others have wrapped up operations. In some cases, this is because of health concerns or lack of a successor to take over the businesses, but if times were booming it would be more likely that a business like Don Johnson Jewellers would have found a willing buyer.

Similarly, you don’t need anything more than eyes to see that there are many homes for sale around Thompson and that many of them are unoccupied, and that the vast majority of them probably aren’t going to sell very soon, in part because their owners want to recover all or part of the prices they bought them for back when houses for sale or vacant apartments were scarce, something that doesn’t seem very likely unless the price of nickel goes way up very soon. Or unless the city manages to find a way to reopen the pool, which is a basic quality of life facility that many people might consider essential to making a city their home, particularly if they have young children, the type of people likely to stick around for the long haul.

So far, at least, changes at Vale haven’t resulted in everyone in Thompson pulling up stakes and heading for greener pastures. That’s good. Empty storefronts in the malls or on downtown streets or blocks with several empty houses up for sale and no one with the money to buy them? That’s definitely bad. But, to return to the boxing analogy used earlier, as long as we’re standing, we’re still in it. Whether that means the city will find a second wind and remake its economy to be less mining-centric a few years down the line or that it’s just destined to lose by a scorecard decision rather than an early-round knockout is the kind of question that keeps Thompson’s residents on the edge of their seats as the next few years of the mining-and-milling only era play out.

© Copyright Thompson Citizen

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