The upsurge in gold mining and logging is promising and is putting growth pressure on the North Shore community
When Maury O’Neill was hired by the Township of Wawa in 1990 there were seven operating gold mines in the region.
As the new community housing coordinator, her job was to find homes for the influx of workers, many of whom were employed at the Citadel gold mine on the outskirts of town.
Today, O’Neill finds herself in familiar territory as the current CEO and economic development officer for the town of 2,700 people located between the northeast shore of Lake Superior and Lake Wawa.
the the mining industry is back in full forceand it’s a full-time scramble for city officials to plan and find suitable housing to help recruit miners and factory workers, but also attract families.
Up the road, 45 minutes away, outside Dubreuilville, the prolific Island Gold Mine has been given the go-ahead by its parent company, Alamos Gold, to expand high-grade underground mining for the third time. On either side of the property line, Argonaut Gold revives the old Magino underground mine, prune it and put it into production in the open.
And the mineralized Archean greenstone rocks of Michipicoten could produce a few more mines with a large number of junior mining companies drilling in the historic gold camp.
The region’s dormant forestry sector has come back to life. the The Cossette Family of Forex, based in Montreal, has acquired a mothballed oriented strand board factory, 25 kilometers from the city, with big plans to revive the operation, offering the promise of 140 jobs.
“I’ve got this housing crisis,” summed up the affable O’Neill, perhaps echoing a refrain from 30 years ago. “These announcements are beautiful.”
Located 230 kilometers north of Sault Ste. Marie, Wawa emerged from the bush around the turn of the last century with the discovery of gold and iron ore in the late 1800s, complemented by a robust logging industry.
The gold rush days have passed, but the iron found inside a mountain fueled the blast furnaces of Algoma Steel for generations all the way to Sault Ste. Marie Mill eventually ended its Algoma Ore division, the city’s largest employer, in 1998.
Proximity Weyerhaeuser out-of-town oriented strand board plant closed in 2007 and the skilled workers who stayed behind — about 75 to 100 people — made the long trip up the Trans-Canada Highway to the Wesdome gold mine.
The community struggled economically for the next decade, enduring an exodus of people and retail businesses, until the price of gold iImproved enough for exploration companies to return to the area, equipped with new theories on where to find new deposits.
Wawa has always been a regional service center with government offices, school boards, retail businesses and a hospital.
Even like Dubreuilville is preparing to welcome a second mine, O’Neill hopes Wawa will be able to capture 10% of the labor spinoffs from expanding mining and logging, perhaps 150 families, to serve as a dormitory for its smaller neighbor to the north.
“But we won’t be able to attract them if we don’t provide suitable accommodation,” she said.
There’s a widespread need for a mix of new housing, especially single-family homes, and O’Neill is calling cattle for developers to come to town.
The housing stock in the community is definitely aging.
O’Neill jokes that there is the “old” part of town with small houses dating from the 1940s and 1950s, and the “new” part with the second wave of house building spanning the 1970s to 1980s. .
What little inventory there is barely caters to the needs and tastes of the families of business executives and managers from major centers, she said. Yet what comes to market usually doesn’t last long.
“Our housing vacancy rate is zero, both for apartments and houses,” she said. “As soon as a home goes up for sale, it’s gone within hours…often above the asking price.”
MLS listings data shows average home prices in the Wawa market have fallen from $180,083 in spring 2020 to $281,933 this year. A top story from last summer had a waterfront home overlooking Lake Wawa selling for a staggering $650,000 for those pieces.
Multi-residential units of all kinds are also in demand. Often, long-term contractors and temporary shift workers will pool their money to buy homes.
“We need rental units, immediately,” O’Neill said.
Additional public housing is also on the agenda, like the nonprofit 40-unit townhouse project she spearheaded in the early 1990s.
Physically, there is room to grow. Wawa has the water and sewer infrastructure capacity to accommodate 5,000 to 6,000 people and 100 lots ready for development.
If there’s one housing trend Wawa wants to avoid, it’s the dormitory-style housing familiar to mining-dependent towns, O’Neill said.
The township council has made a few exceptions in recent years to allow a temporary 150-person modular camp for crews associated with the East-West Tie power line project, and again for a gold exploration crew working near the airport.
“That’s not how the community wants to grow,” O’Neill said. “We see it as a short-term solution.”
Wawa not only needs housing; he needs people.
The steady erosion in the number of people who have left the region over the years has left many vacancies in the education, health care and service sectors.
Mirroring Wawa’s work situation, the popular Tim Hortons’ hours of operation are limited to 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.
“If you’re coming to Wawa, I can’t take you out for dinner on a Monday night because none of the restaurants are open,” O’Neill said.
Immigration is a big part of their strategy to attract labor to the city, O’Neill said, but some out-of-town entrepreneurs have trusted Wawa’s future and invested in it. the revitalization of some dilapidated hotel properties.
Places like Wawa are not immune to the volatility of mineral commodity prices. Learning from their history of repeated cycles of boom and bust in the resource sector, O’Neill explained that it’s about “finding a balance” in planning for the short- and long-term future. .
While Wawa’s housing stock could certainly benefit from an upgrade, O’Neill said over-expanding by approving a slew of new homes for the market serves no purpose when the resource economy crashes and that the city is left with many vacancies.
“You want to accommodate growth, but we certainly recognize the need to balance the growth pressures on the community with what the community can afford and support over the long term.”