Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
Welcome to The Soo!
Business View Magazine interviews representatives of the City of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, for our focus on economic and community development in Canada.
Affectionately dubbed “The Soo,” Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario has a rich history that dates back to the 1600s, though it wasn’t actually incorporated as a city until 1912. Thanks to its prime location at the heart of the Great Lakes, Sault Ste. Marie is an international port of entry to the U.S. and a tourist mecca for travelers and artists drawn to the splendid scenery of the District of Algoma. Back in the day, legendary Canadian Group of Seven artist, Lawren Harris, had a boxcar specially outfitted for fall painting expeditions along the Algoma Central Railway (ACR) line. Today, those same iconic landscapes can be viewed from the comfort of one of North America’s most popular train excursions that runs between The Soo and the gorgeous Agawa Canyon.
Business View Magazine recently discussed this ambitious border city’s growth strategy and vision for the future with Tom Vair, Deputy CAO of Sault Ste. Marie Community Development, and Dan Hollingsworth, Executive Director of Business Development for the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
BVM: How is Sault Ste. Marie currently addressing economic development?
Vair: “City Hall did a restructuring in 2016 and created a Community Development and Enterprise Services department. I’m Deputy CAO of that group and we work closely with the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation (SSMEDC) and the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre. The City Planning Dept. and Building Dept. are now within our scope. That was done strategically to improve the way we interface with the business world and streamline services and delivery.
“We’ve just gone through an 18-month process with our Community Adjustment Committee to create a new strategy for diversification and development. We took a hard look at the community and noted areas needing improvement. That resulted in recommendations now being implemented in a project called Future SSM. The core principle of that project centers around community investment across four pillars: economic diversity, cultural vitality, social equity, and environmental sustainability.
“We’re just kicking off a 3-year, $4 million project and hiring the dedicated resources to work with our community partners to deliver on the strategy. Attributes that stood out as we talked to businesses and residents are: we have really strong sectors such as advanced manufacturing in steel and fabrication. We have a growing ICT sector, anchored, in part, by the headquarters of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission being here, our geography and sense of place, a tremendous quality of life, and low housing costs; enjoying all that, our location on the hub of the Great Lakes has to offer – Lake Superior, the North Channel, St. Joseph Island to the east, and northern Michigan to the south. Being a border community also provides advantages for logistics to service North American business markets.”
Hollingsworth: “The EDC is a separate not-for-profit organization funded in part by the City. We’re responsible for working with the City and community stakeholders to advance goals around small business development, export opportunities, tracking investment to the community, and tourism marketing. A lot of individuals commute into SSM to work every day. We’re an international community on the hub of northern Michigan, with an international bridge that connects Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario with the American community of Sault Ste. Marie. We’re quite proud of that and we do a lot of work with our colleagues in the ‘Michigan Soo’, as it’s called.”
BVM: What are your major industries?
Hollingsworth: “Historically, SSM was built around the steel industry. Algoma Steel is our major employer and that spun off into a lot of service sector industries that support steel fabrication. We’re also in a pretty diverse arboreal forest fiber basket, so we have secondary manufacturing around the forestry sector of products such as medium-density fiberboard and floor-joist systems.
“Logistically speaking, we have excellent transportation links. Because of the waterways, we have great marine connections. The TransCanada Highway intersects the community, east and west, and we’re at the northern terminus of I-75 in Sault, Michigan. We’re also served by CN and CP Rail, and we have a full-service airport with Air Canada and Porter Airlines providing regular flights. In the winter, Sunwing offers direct flights from Sault Ste. Marie to the Dominican Republic. And twenty minutes south of Sault Michigan, Chippewa County International Airport has direct flights to Minneapolis and Detroit.”
BVM: Are there any renewable energy initiatives in the works?
Vair: “We have some exciting projects underway. Council has approved a $30 million smart grid project. That is a public-private partnership with our municipally-owned utility and Infrastructure Energy and it will be, as far as we know, the first community-wide smart grid project in North America. Others have been done on campuses and in business parks, but this will be the entire City of Sault Ste. Marie.
“We’ll have an advanced electric distribution grid installed and that piggy backs on a strong heritage of energy generation in the region. We’re actually a net exporter of renewable energy; we produce more than we consume. There are significant hydro facilities that have been around a long time. We also have over 120 MW of wind power, and a 60 MW solar installation on our distribution grid. In fact, in the shoulder season, our entire City is powered by that solar plant.”
Hollingsworth: “We’re unique in those renewable energy assets, which is one of the reasons our smart energy strategy and the micro-grid for the community is taking off. That’s one of the compelling stories we tell businesses interested in coming here. That we have a robust energy system and we’re looking for opportunities in that space.”
BVM: How will the smart grid initiative attract businesses?
Vair: “There is a tremendous opportunity for new businesses to attach to the smart grid – so the Soo becomes a logical test bed for advanced electric technology and systems. It’s also really important for businesses that require quality power for their operations. The smart grid provides a level of resiliency and regulates the voltage going to a business, which can be a crucial factor for companies with specialized equipment.”
Hollingsworth: “Basically, the smart grid provides a series of sensors and control systems that monitor distribution. So, if there is a power outage it can reroute power in a millisecond. From an industry perspective, if you can have high reliability and avoid downtime it makes good sense. That’s very attractive for companies wanting to do further testing in that environment – new sensor technologies and various types of technology around electric vehicles are opportunities we’re pursuing.”
BVM: Is entrepreneurship a part of downtown revitalization?
Vair: “Definitely. The Innovation Centre, a partner of our EDC, is focused on the science and technology sector and they have an incubator space for start-ups. Companies are given mentorship, support services, and access to funding from organizations such as the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario (FedNor), and the Northern Ontario Angels that also invests in businesses.”
Hollingsworth: “We have two incubators. The Innovation Centre operates the Accelerator Hub in a repurposed building on the main street in our downtown. They work with companies that are developing or executing a new technology. At the EDC, we have the Millworks Centre for Entrepreneurship in the machine shop of a former paper mill, where we work with smaller companies that are more main street oriented, like professional consultant services and marketing firms. It’s a 5,000-sq.-ft. space in a newer development complex on the west side of the downtown. There is a big convention venue for conferences, entertainment, weddings, and the area is also growing with niche tourism services.”
Vair: “Our downtown development initiative is a high priority for the community. The City and our Downtown Business Association are investing a lot of resources and time looking into drawing millennials to the core – event activation, street closures, festivals. We’re opening up new bike lanes; we have a great new hiking/cycling/walking trail that circles the City, and we’ve put a lot of infrastructure there to make it more appealing.”
BVM: What are the objectives for future growth of Sault Ste. Marie?
Vair: “It’s an exciting time for the community. The momentum is building. Young professionals moving back to the area to take jobs are bringing energy and enthusiasm with them. Our goal with the Future SSM project is to have a population on 100,000 by 2037. Right now, we’re around 75,000. The City is proactive in working with businesses; they just rolled out a new CIP that allows companies to get a 100 percent rebate on taxes the first year, 75 percent year two and 50 percent in year three.”
Hollingsworth: “We’re working hard to improve the entrepreneurial ecosystem here and encourage our youth to stay. There are some cool businesses starting in our downtown and I think our Future SSM strategy is on track. We’re really interested in attracting immigrants to our community to grow the talent pool and promote diversity. And we’re working with our post-secondary institutions to meet the needs of business and industry. It’s a very positive time coming up!”
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AT A GLANCE
WHO: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
WHAT: Northern Great Lakes community; population 75,000
WHERE: On the St. Mary’s River, just north of the Michigan border.
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