Mayor Keith Hobbs says changes to the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation are the start of a new era of economic prosperity in the North.
Nipigon Mayor Richard Harvey said he’s optimistic the revamped focus will make it easier for communities and businesses to weave their way through the application process. On Friday Minister of Northern Development and Mines Michael Gravelle said the enhancements to five NOHFC programs were made with the Growth Plan for Northern Ontario in mind.
Gravelle said the new plan, which tailors itself to strategic economic infrastructure, community capacity building, innovation, northern business opportunity and includes a revamped Northern Ontario internship program, was also built with the guidance of community and business leaders in the region.
“We felt it was very timely for us to look at the priorities in the Northern Ontario Growth plan and to see whether or not the programs that were in place fit the priorities that were identified in the Growth plan,” Gravelle said.
NOHFC has seen its budget grow from $60 million in 2008 to $100 million in 2013. Gravelle said the latter figure will hold steady, but the changes should help streamline the system and ensure the money gets handed out in a more efficient fashion.
While he praised the results of the Heritage Fund over the course of its 25 year existence, he admitted there’s always room for improvement.
This takes care of that, Gravelle said.
“We’ve invested over $890 million in the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund over the last 10 years. We’ve had well over 5,000 projects and created or retained more than 22,000 jobs. But can we do a better job? I think we can,” Gravelle said.
“Quite frankly, that was the goal of the work that we’ve done, to make the NOHFC program an even better fit.”
Hobbs said the enhancements and changes were necessary, given the potential mining and economic boom he believes is right around the corner.
“It shows that our voices are being heard,” Hobbs said. “I’m excited, as most of the mayors and reeves her, to see how it’s rolled out.”
Gravelle said the plan was designed to make the most of growing economic sectors that could impact the North. In addition to mining, he listed forester, advanced manufacturing, agriculture, aviation and aerospace, tourism and water technologies.
“Those were all identified by northerners as key sectors with growth potential,” Gravelle said.
Harvey agreed the changes were probably necessary.
“I see a lot of refocusing of what we actually had in the programs, which is good because one of the concerns we’ve always had … is that it can sometimes be confusing as to which stream as you’re going for funding applications to follow,” Harvey said.
“My hope is that in what we’re seeing now is it will be more transparent, a clearer application process and you’ll have a much better idea about eligibility.”
Harvey particularly liked the community capacity building program, which he said can be tough in more remote communities scattered throughout Northwestern Ontario.
Gravelle said the strategic economic infrastructure program will help communities with important projects, pointing to Thunder Bay’s waterfront and airport expansion in North Bay as examples. It will also include an event partnership program. The northern innovation program will focus on the commercialization of new technologies, while the internship program will help recent graduates gain experience and on-the-job training.