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Housing starts build banner year under a Blue Sky.

A white-hot housing market contributed to a banner year for the City of North Bay. An influx of executives with high-paying jobs, retirees and post-secondary students, combined with a strong product mix of light industrial manufacturing, has city development officials even more buoyant over the year ahead.

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The city set a new record in 2004 for building permits, recording more than $71 million worth.

It bested the previous annual record of $70 million set in the 1980s, and more than doubled the average of about $37 million in the last seven years.

City officials are confident they will match and hopefully claim a new record this year.

With a pro-business minded council led by Mayor Vic Fedeli, they are fiercely lobbying senior levels of government to stop investing "mega-millions" in urban sprawl in southern Ontario and instead direct new immigrants and manufacturing to the North.

Around the council table, Fedeli is doing all he can to beat the drums of business.

"The decisions we make affect the economy," says Fedeli. "All of council feels the only way we can grow out of our malaise is to increase our assessment base and that's by bringing in new business and building new houses."

Over the last three years, the city has seen new commercial, residential and multi-residential developments, including a new Home Depot and student residences at Nipissing University and Canadore College.

Last year's building boom took place mainly in the residential market with 146 new homes and resulted in the creation of 638 more construction jobs than in 2003. Still on the horizon is a pending provincial funding announcement for the $240 million North Bay Regional Health Centre project.

"We know the hospital is looming," says Rick Evans, Manager of the Mayor's Office of Economic Development," and when they start releasing those tenders, it will suck up all the trades in northeastern Ontario."

Anchor draws attention

The opening of a new Home Depot last year has spurred renewed interest in creating more retail-commercial development around the Highway 11-17 interchange.

In promoting itself as a regional shopping hub, the city has received inquiries about some prime highway property occupied by the North Bay and District Chamber of Commerce and tourism information centre.

The 1.6-hectare property next to Home Depot is estimated to be worth $1.5 million. The chamber has agreed to move and the city has issued an RFP for the parcel along with another 3.2 hectares south of the store.

Fedeli says the chamber property would be ideal for a car dealership, hotel or restaurant.

More property lies to the west of Home Depot with the city's public works yard occupying about 3.5 hectares.

"That whole area will be ripe for development in a few years," says Fedeli, eyeing it as the next area of commercial growth.

Small business continues to be North Bay's largest employment generator, representing a conservative estimate of over 900 jobs at "mom-and-pop" micro-businesses.

Study to succeed

The city's Business Centre is launching several economic development initiatives to support small business, including an investment attraction strategy, a business retention and expansion survey, as well as working on the city's award-winning downtown improvement plan.

The city is posting available downtown properties on the Ontario Investor Service property database, as well as an American online service called FastFacility. The city will be launching its own database this spring, listing industrial and commercial properties available for purchase.

The city will be starting a homegrown doctor recruitment strategy in working with local health care, legal and banking partners to teach medical interns on rotation or locums to become better business people. By developing a counselling package and a program for spousal employment opportunities, they hope to build relationships to encourage young physicians to stay and set up their practice.

North Bay prides itself on being user-friendly for home-based business. The city's planning department revisited some old bylaws two years ago to recognize and legitimize this sector as a vital part of North Bay's economy.

Evans says it helped address some regulatory issues dealing with signage and parking in a positive way, rather than laying down the law in a heavy-handed enforcement manner.

"It's worked out well. The number of incidents in home-based businesses is very small, compared to the population we have."

Evans says there are several examples of home shops that have expanded into major employers, including mining suppliers Miller Technologies and J.N. Precise. They're what Business Centre manager Karen Jones calls her "acorns that grow into oak trees."

Loonie land

North Bay's biggest economic development initiative is its 'Buck-an-Acre' industrial land marketing effort.

Backed by a six-figure campaign that kicked off in January, the city aims to sell off 112 acres of fully serviced industrial land for $1 per acre. Targeting manufacturers in the Golden Horseshoe, the city is placing ads in national newspapers, business magazines and manufacturing trade publications with the goal of landing "one good-sized business" by year's end, says Fedeli. It's the city's first outside marketing effort in close to 20 years.

"We've sent material to people who have contacted us," says Fedeli, who would not disclose the number and kinds of inquiries, except to say "it's going very well."

He categorizes the city's promotion of the soon-to-be decommissioned NORAD underground complex as "slow but advancing." Known locally as 'The Hole,' it will be replaced by a new aboveground facility now under construction for 2006.

"The prospects are very interesting," says Fedeli. "It's the government that's slow."

He believes the three-storey, 140,000-square foot bombproof bunker is a great business opportunity and he's pitching the property to global telecom companies as a secure data storage facility connected by a large fibre-optic pipe.

But the mayor says Ottawa is dragging its heels getting to the negotiating table to transfer the property over to the city.

Fedeli says the city will acquire the facility "if the terms are right."

"They can't just walk out of the building and then start talking about us taking over. There has to be a tremendous amount of money that comes with it because the cost of decommissioning (the complex) has got to be in the tens of millions for the federal government.

"The environmental aspect will not allow them to cement both ends and walk away" with the facility located next to the city's Trout Lake water supply. "This is the kind of compensatory dollars that the municipality will be seeking."

The defence rests

Fedeli is no stranger to Ottawa's methods of disposal of government assets. He went to court against the Department of National Defence in the late 1990s to secure three Canadian air force hangars that were slated for demolition. As the former chairman of the Air Base Property Corp., he was the major architect behind creating North Bay's airside industrial park. Jack Garland Airport now supports 10 companies and employs 300.

The city wants to build on that aerospace industry success by developing some additional building lots to the east of its air park.

Fedeli is looking to Ottawa and Queen's Park for "several million" dollars in funding to service about 30 acres of green field space.

"Along one of the taxi-ways, we're trying to service those properties so we can start to attract companies."

With a 10,000-foot long runway, Fedeli says North Bay is ideal to test aircraft and bring in more aerospace manufacturing companies.

Long-term, the city continues to explore developing the airport as an international hub for transpolar air routes.

Air polar routes have taken longer to develop than anticipated, says Evans. Occasional heavy-lift aircraft use North Bay to transport automotive parts and overseas mining equipment but the project's biggest logistics obstacle is finding a cargo back haul for overseas markets.

"That's still the nut to crack," says Evans. But with the eventual completion of the Highway 11 four-laning expansion as part of the overall transportation infrastructure, "North Bay will get a shot at it."

www.city.north-bay.on.ca

By IAN ROSS

Northern Ontario Business
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Author:Ross, Ian
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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