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August 29, 2006

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Sault is in a construction boom. Or is it?

City’s mayor paints rosy picture, but construction head cautious

SAULT STE. MARIE

The city’s mayor calls it a major economic construction boom; the man at the helm of the local construction industry is a little more cautious.

“Let’s say it has the makings of a second straight solid year with the potential of a few more good years to come,” said Rick Thomas, manager of the Sault Ste. Marie Construction Association.

While Mayor John Rowswell says the city’s economy has finally turned around and every sector of tradespeople have plenty of work to be found, Thomas said the potential for a few more steady years in the construction industry is there.

But he notes more work needs to be done in order to ensure that good work years are still to come.

“I don’t share in the mayor’s long-term diagnosis,” Thomas said. “I see deferred spending for the next two or three years and after that it will depend on institutional budgets in the future. We don’t know what the provincial and federal governments will do.”

If it’s left up to Rowswell, the economy will continue to climb as he’s gearing council towards setting new long-term goals to develop the city into a multi-modal transportation hub to move goods into the North American market and develop manufacturing or “value-added” plants in the Sault.

He also wants to see an increase in private sector development in the light and medium industries.

The city has several parcels of industrial land ready to be serviced and properly zoned. It just needs buyers for the land and plants to be built.

Thomas notes that past efforts to continue development — both private and public sector — need to continue to ensure the long-term viability of tradespeople.

From the shores of the St. Mary’s River to the city’s expanding north end and from the eastern boundaries to the west, signs of an improving economy are well underway, Rowswell argues.

A $25-million sports and entertainment centre is nearing completion with opening events planned for late September; a $54-million tourism destination, Borealis, will see a shovel in the ground in the spring and that construction project is expected to last two years.

Borealis, a development on the city’s waterfront, will include a $15 million injection from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. for a major tourist destination.

The remainder of the private-sector development includes a hotel, specialty retail, restaurants, a live performance theatre and a relocated railway station.

The Ontario government is moving forward with its plans to build a new 289-bed hospital in Sault Ste. Marie at the city’s north end, valued at a minimum $180 million; just a stone’s throw away from the recently completed F.J. Davey Home, a brand new retirement and old age home.

The mini-boom began with a injection of provincial and federal government funding that got long-awaited projects off the ground, including a massive east-end sewage treatment plant upgrade, and a Brookfield Power commercial wind park development.

The city’s downtown sports and entertainment centre, now called Steelback Centre, and the retirement home kick started developments at the south and north ends of the city.

Commercial development continues with a fleury of new buildings at the city’s north end to house superstore retailers including Mark’s Work Wearhouse and Future Shop and restaurants Boston’s Pizza and Montana’s means the private sector also sees a renewal of the Sault, Thomas said.

“Private development is very robust and all you have to do is look up and down Great Northern Road,” the city’s main north-west artery, Thomas said.

“We had a bit of a lag for a few years and now we see a light in the future.”

Various projects will be tied by a new truck transportation corridor that will stretch from the International Bridge to the Trans Canada Highway, allowing road transport easier access to the Michigan border and into Ontario and beyond.

Meanwhile, both major school boards have also begun renovation projects on their old facilities.

The Algoma District School Board and the Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board expect to have paid out $12.1 million over-and-above their traditional facility renewal budgets by the end of summer.

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