Thompson, Manitoba is a city that acknowledges its potential and is seizing opportunities to further its recognition as the Hub of the North for serving as a trade and service centre in northern Manitoba. The city provides services to communities within a radius of over four hundred kilometres.
An essential determinant of a city’s long-term sustainability and resilience to a changing economic climate is the ability to diversify – to build upon recognizable pillars of strength and explore current and emerging opportunities for economic growth. A diversified economy has more potential for employment growth, which in turn leads to favourable perceptions about a community’s liveability and its quality of life.
Thompson was incorporated as a city in 1970 and has a current population of approximately 13 123. The city is located in northern Manitoba’s rich boreal forest region, 740 kilometres north of the provincial capital of Winnipeg and 830 kilometres from the Canada-United States border.
The city has reliable transportation infrastructure in place including provincial trunk highways number 6 (PTH#6) – the main highway to Winnipeg – and PTH#39, which runs southwest from Highway 6 to Flin Flon. Provincial Road #391 (PR#391) also connects the city to numerous communities in the north.
To accommodate increased truck traffic, the PTH#6 “has seen millions of dollars of infrastructure improvements put in over the last number of years,” says Mayor Dennis Fenske. “So that’s seen major improvements.” Thompson also serves a staging point for goods and cargo going further north to places like Churchill and Nunavut. Thompson is, “a transportation hub for cargo going north.”
Hudson Bay Railway offers service from The Pas, Manitoba, through Thompson-Gillam to Churchill. “So we do have rail service from Thompson through to Churchill,” adds the mayor. VIA Rail also provides services to Churchill, Winnipeg and The Pas.
There are regular flights from Thompson Airport, which is the second-busiest airport in the province after James Richardson International Airport located in Winnipeg. Flights are provided throughout the province by the two primary carriers: Calm Air and Perimeter Air.
Thompson has traditionally been known as a mining community after rich nickel deposits were discovered in 1956. It was the provincial government and International Nickel Company’s (INCO) agreement in 1956 that led to the city’s founding. The new city was named after INCO’s then-chairman John Thompson. Thompson smelter and refinery was built at a cost of $185 million and opened in 1961. By 1969, production in Thompson made INCO the world’s second-largest producer of nickel.
In 2006, Brazilian mining company Vale was successful in its $19 billion takeover bid of INCO. Today, Vale is one of the world’s largest nickel producers, and as Thompson is its headquarters for Manitoba operations, it is one of the city’s main employers.
In 2010, it was announced that Vale Canada planned to move from a fully integrated mining operation to a Milling and Mining Operation in Thompson and focus on its mining and milling operations instead. An environmental extension has been granted by the Federal Government extending the full operation to 2018
“Vale is continuing on beyond 2018 as a mine mill operation with the expansion of what’s called the 1D Footwall project.” It is, Mayor Fenske says, “a larger ore body than was originally discovered in 1956.” The Footwall Deep project’s feasibility study is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2016.
Although mining has traditionally been – and still is – an important driver of Thompson’s economy, Mayor Fenske affirms that the city remains a strong diversified service hub based on industrial and business, health, education and government services.
There have been developments in the city including the state-of-the-art Global Aerospace Centre for Icing and Environmental Research (GLACIER), managed by MDS AeroTest. GLACIER, located south of Thompson near Ospwagan Lake, is the most advanced jet engine testing facility in the world. This is a joint venture between Pratt & Whitney Canada and Rolls-Royce Canada. The project cost $44 million and became operational in 2010. GLACIER’s sister organization, Canadian Environmental Test Research and Education Center Inc. (EnviroTREC) invested more than $5 million to develop the technologies for the future production and design of large aircraft engines.
“That expansion of winter weather testing over the last number of years has created employment,” says Mayor Fenske. “We continue to have companies such as Ford, Mitsubishi, Honda and the automotive sector come forth to do their winter weather testing here in Thompson.”
Mayor Fenske notes that there is room for more senior’s housing in the city, especially when considering that there is an ageing population. “It’s a national issue in the sense of transitioning housing for the senior sector. There is a lack of that housing in our community, as it is across Canada.”
He says that more facilities are required, and the city is taking a serious look at increasing that sector to have, “more facilities available in northern Manitoba and Thompson, so that our residents can remain here, retire and stay within close proximity of their family and grandchildren.”
The city also had a recent announcement regarding the expansion of its chemotherapy unit and community cancer program at Thompson General Hospital. The new $1.4 million unit is further evidence of Thompson’s position as a centre for cancer care treatment and will benefit communities in a huge way. Mayor Fenske explains that transporting cancer patients from northern Manitoba to Winnipeg can be very expensive.
“We have a service centre area around us of about 65,000 people who need healthcare. If they can travel a short distance to Thompson to receive that healthcare, then that’s our aim. We’re really focusing on increasing the availability of services in the healthcare sector to service northern Manitoba.”
Other projects include the completion of the 35,000-square-foot Thompson Regional Community Centre (TRCC), constructed in partnership with the two senior levels of government. once operational, the City entered into an agreement with the Northern Regional Health Authority (NRHA) to provide services. The $12 to 15 million project was completed in 2012. The centre includes a multisport arena, fitness centre, running track, an art and cultural room, administrative offices, retail space and food services among its many features.
“It is joined to the new University College of the North (UCN). That was roughly an $80 million project completed in 2015. So that was an expansion in our educational services to our community.” The mayor adds that a francophone elementary school was recently opened in the city at a cost of $5 million. “That’s a first in the north.”
Funding for a new wastewater treatment plant was recently announced to address the issues of Thompson’s growing population and its aging wastewater infrastructure that currently doesn’t meet regulation guidelines. This modern facility will be part of the city’s commitment to protecting the environment of both Thompson and its neighbouring communities while ensuring the city’s sustainability.
The cost of the project is estimated to be over $36 million with costs being shared equally by the federal government, the province and the city. “It’s in the final detail design stage with construction happening in June of 2016,” says Mayor Fenske. The project is expected to be completed in 2018.
The mayor explains that the main difference between Thompson and other communities in the country is that, “Eighty percent of our infrastructure was put in all at the same time in the early sixties. So it is coming of age now, at the same time.”
The Thompson Economic Diversification Working Group (TEDWG) was established in 2011 and is funded by Vale. From this forum, the city determines ways in which it will address change and seize opportunities. The TEDWG helps implement planning and creates the framework for the Thompson Economic Diversification Plan. This plan includes a regulatory framework and several strategic action plans.
These plans, “will provide a blueprint on how to address areas that need action in order to further diversify the economy,” says Thompson City Manager Gary Ceppetelli. “The process was inclusive of a broad range of local and regional stakeholders that collaborated for a common purpose.”
Additionally, Thompson Unlimited, Thompson’s economic development arm, has a focus on reinforcing the city as a regional hub. It “focuses on three main sectors: regional service center, winter weather testing and tourism,” says Gary. “Vale is undertaking training programs that concentrate on training locally to ensure a better chance of retaining individuals. From a quality of life perspective, the city has initiated a long-range infrastructure plan – including multi-use paths – that will give residents the ability to access unlimited opportunities.”
Certainly, when discussing sustainability and long-term visions for cities such as Thompson, one can’t neglect Thompson’s partnerships with its Aboriginal community. Its Aboriginal residents are a prominent presence within the community with at least thirty-seven percent self-identifying as Aboriginal at the time of the 2011 census. In 2009, the city entered into the Thompson Aboriginal Accord with a number of key signatories. The accord functions as part of the city’s planning and acknowledges the special role the Aboriginal community has played in the city’s history and will have in its future. It acts as a commitment to realizing and securing relationships with this sector of the population and is unique in that it is one of only two in Canada.
“The accord continues to grow as new partners are continually being added,” explains Gary. “The accord is one of the city’s main documents and is a framework upon which the city conducts business. The city believes that good relationships with the Aboriginal community are based on the foundation of the ‘shared values of honesty, respect, mutual sharing and contribution.’”
He also says that strategic goals are established by the city council that include cultural diversity and sustainable growth for both the city and the region. “Council is of the firm belief that what is good for the city is good for the region and vice-versa.”
As for things to do and see in Thompson, there are no limits. There are plenty of outdoor activities including camping, hunting, fishing, boating and snowmobiling in this boreal forest area surrounded by lakes and rivers. Mystery Mountain Winter Park has everything required for snowboarding and skiing enthusiasts. The Thompson Golf Club provides a Par 37, 9 hole golf course with a slope rating of 126, and includes Clubhouse facilities as well.
Spirit Way offers a walking trail that showcases the history, culture and stories about Thompson and its people. The Heritage North Museum has a display of mining and historical artefacts along with displays of animals native to the area. Thompson is also en route to Churchill, Manitoba, known internationally as the ‘polar bear capital of the world.’
“I feel we’re on the right track. We are a very sustainable community. Building on each of the pillars that we have will ensure that. The biggest thing we have to offer is quality of life. The northern experience is one to itself. You really have to experience the northern lifestyle.”