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Communities on the Move: How Dryden is preparing for a mining boom

Northwestern Ontario pulp mill town plans for population surge, expanded housing needs over the next decade
The pulp mill dominates the skyline of the City of Dryden (Ian Ross/Northern Ontario Business photo)

The construction of an open-pit gold mine outside the City of Dryden could turn this northwestern Ontario community into a boom town practically overnight. 

Should Treasury Metals greenlight construction on its Goliath Project at the end of 2024, Dryden will have a two-year headstart to put its plan into motion to accommodate an influx of new arrivals and businesses before the mine goes into production in 2026.

Goliath, located 20 kilometres to the east along the Trans-Canada Highway, could create 450 mining jobs in the area over an initial 13-year mine life. 

The Dryden area has become a hotbed for gold and lithium exploration in recent years. And for junior mining companies working nearby, Dryden’s service economy provides them with everything they want, with amenities required for long-term stays, supplies, maintenance, and logistical support.

According to Dryden’s draft Official Plan, mining activity could boost the community’s current population of 7,400 to more than 10,300 by 2041.

Dryden’s population could itch up to more than 11,200 if the Nuclear Waste Management Organization decides next year to place a deep nuclear waste repository near Ignace, an hour’s drive to the east. 

Carving out an underground facility would create 1,000 construction jobs over 10 years and more than 1,300 direct and indirect jobs when operational.

“These are all significant projects that have the potential to spur on growth within Dryden,” said municipal CAO Roger Nesbitt.

With Dryden so close, mining companies like Treasury prefer not to go with a workers' accommodation camp at the mine site, but bed down its future workforce in town, as company president Jeremy Wyeth explained to Dryden city council last May.

Same goes for an Australian lithium company. The head of Critical Resources, the holder of the 8-million-tonne Mavis Project, northeast of Dryden, said in a May investors web call that it’s also viewing the town for its long-term accommodations

“It’s tight,” said Nesbitt of Treasury’s two-year construction timeline, “but being prepared and knowing exactly what you have to execute on is key.”

While the spinoffs from mining bodes well for Dryden’s economy, it also places pressure on the municipality from a housing and infrastructure standpoint.

“We have to deal with that boom and start as far ahead as we can,” said Nesbitt.

“If you’re not prepared for that boom it can be a very difficult thing for the entire community to deal with,” he said, which can burden local boards of education, health care institutions and policing. 

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In preparing a new Official Plan, municipal staff are taking stock of how they’ll manage growth and identify what gaps need to be filled. That means designating land around the community for future residential, commercial and industrial needs. 

With 475 vacant lots available in town, Nesbitt hopes the prospect of a mine and deep storage facility will lure some large homebuilders to town to expand its tight housing supply of single family dwellings.

Depending on growth and demand, those lots will need municipal servicing. And there’s not a lot of funding sources Dryden can turn to.

Northern municipalities like Dryden don’t impose development charges. It’s an investor attraction tool; however, it means they don’t have vast reserves of funds to draw from when real growth, like a mining boom, takes place.

“Our growth rate hasn’t been there like other municipalities in southern Ontario,” said Nesbitt.

“This concept of 'growth pays for growth' that you hear of in southern Ontario, that doesn’t exist in rural northern communities.

“The general consensus for many years is we need to the keep costs as low as possible to encourage development.”

Furthermore, the City of Dryden is just climbing itself out of a major debt crisis and cash crunch from a decade ago, partly due to an MPAC (Municipal Property Assessment Corp.) reassessment of the local forest products mill that resulted in millions in reduced revenue. A previous term of council crafted a no-frills financial plan that saw a significant amount of that debt load paid off in 2021.

Nesbitt said it would be beneficial if Dryden could draw additional tax revenue from a wider area. 

Like many service towns in the North, Dryden caters to an outlying population estimated at 3,700 within a 30- to 40-kilometre radius. Many people built homes in unincorporated townships where land taxes are low. They use municipal services, frequent local retail, and travel Dryden roads but don’t contribute to the tax base.

Barring provincial land tax reform — which Nesbitt would like to see — it puts Dryden at a disadvantage to address their infrastructure deficit and boost their municipal investment and programming.

Filing their Official Plan with the province forecasting a major growth spurt doesn’t mean you’ll be topped up with more cash for streets, water and sewer lines. There’s nothing extra coming from the provincial infrastructure fund for towns that experience a sudden mining boom. 

To ensure the housing for the workforce is there, Nesbitt said it’s going to require developing partnerships with the mining companies to meet their needs and open up land for development.

Nesbitt said he’s been studying up on what housing options are available. 

“We’re looking more toward a housing hub concept,” he said.

Instead of a field of modular trailers traditionally associated with forestry and mining camps, there are a variety modern development models that can accommodate transient fly-in/fly-out mine workers with a mix of more permanent lodgings for those who want to relocate and bring their families to Dryden. 

Treasury Metals did not respond to a query made by Northern Ontario Business to the company’s investor relations contact on what kind of housing would be required, and what kind of arrangement they would establish with the City of Dryden.

In sampling local opinion, Nesbitt said, with any growth, there’s mixed interest in seeing the positives and negatives, but overall Dryden is optimistic that it’s good for the economy given the community’s historical reliance on the ups and downs of the pulp and paper industry.

“We’re going to diversify. A strong economy is a diverse economy. For the most part, people welcome the different industry and the growth that comes with it.”