The City Has a Plan to Grow and Keep Growing

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City Planner, Don McConnell has helped plan this city for 35 years.

Have you ever wondered why Sault Ste. Marie isn’t as big as other cities? Why we don’t have the big retail and big box stores?

If location, location, location is a factor for many in real estate, then shouldn’t Sault Ste. Marie be much bigger? We’re right in the middle of the country, we have beautiful surroundings so what’s stopping major industry and people from relocating to the Sault and how does the city position itself to get more people, and more business to move here?

Those are just some of the questions facing the powers that be at City Hall and for the Planning Department almost on a daily basis. Headed by Don McConnell, the planning department has its pulse on the city’s growth – where the city is heading and what needs to be done to make the Sault an attractive place to call home or operate businesses that in turn creates jobs and adds to the Sault’s economy. First, let’s take a look at the population.

This ariel shot shows the city's waterfront in the early 1970's - a huge difference in 40 years. What will the city look like in another 40 years?
This Ariel shot shows the city’s waterfront in the early 1970’s – a huge difference in 40 years. What will the city look like in another 40 years?

The actual population of this is city is just over 75,000. 75,141 to be exact. The city hit its peak in 1982 when the population was just over 82,000 people. Algoma Steel at the time employed 12,000 – today that number has dwindled to just under 4,000. Those jobs are never coming back.   The population however, is slowly on the rise. From 2006 to 2011 Sault Ste. Marie was just one of two cities in Ontario that actually saw growth outside of the Greater Toronto Area. In the 2011 census, Sault Ste. Marie reported a 0.3 percent increase.

What the city looks like today.
What the city looks like today.

As far as future growth, McConnell believes the City will inch it’s way back to the early 1980’s levels. “I think you will see the population around 76,000 in the 2016 census” McConnell says the population is projected to increase modestly to about 78,000 in five years time. “people in my profession are famous for making projections but I think anything over and above 5 or 10 years is difficult” McConnel said, “that will depend greatly not necessarily on population growth but whether we can attract enough people to move here or stay here for the jobs that will be available”

McConnell said with an aging population a lot of people retiring will mean employers will be looking for fill those jobs. The big question is will the Sault have the skill set left to fill those jobs? McConnell said the Sault will be competing with almost every other community suffering from the same thing. “People used to move where the jobs were, in about five of ten years they will have a choice of a number of communities in the same boat and it’s no longer just about the jobs but what else can we offer a lot of people compare their city to Toronto”

The old hospital site is on its way to become a major residential anchor for the downtown area.
The old hospital site is on its way to become a major residential anchor for the downtown area.

That’s because so many things can change  and the variables  are many when you’re a city planner. “We’re very much a different city than we were when Algoma Steel was employing 12,000”  McConnell points out that despite the downsizing of the steel producer and the loss in the population because of, Sault Ste. Marie has kept its head above water. “I have to say our situation in Sault Ste. Marie is exactly the same as it is in other parts of Northern Ontario, perhaps better.  “we’ve been building over 100 housing units a year and we anticipate that will continue over the next years or so, but how can that be if our population is basically stagnant? “the old days of 2.4 children per household are over” McConnell said and pleased to see more apartment type construction.”when people move to a community they are not going to buy a house right away, they will feel out the job, the community before buying a house and we have suffered by not having enough good quality apartments, city council started a program giving apartment developers incentives to build and it’s working and we’re starting to see a good move in that direction”

McConnell believes the trend to build single family homes will be replaced at least by 50 percent into more townhouses and apartment buildings such at the condo development on the old hospital site and the new apartment building on the corner of Bay and East street – more of that is on the horizon.

So what does this city really need to grow?

Forget about major industry such as a car plant or even car parts plant – though that would be nice to have, the reality is, car manufacturers like to be where the market is and where the car parts are, chances of that happening is zero. One thing that could make a huge difference is what the David Peterson Liberal government did in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s – move government offices around instead of the Toronto area. McConnell said that move, where the Sault got the OLG head office was monumental to the city then and it remains today. Creating hundreds of jobs and spin off, the economic impact for the Sault helped transform the city and the downtown area. The waterfront revitalization plan was well under way when OLG moved to the Sault but the move allowed the city through public and private investment to change, grow and expand opportunities to serve a crown corporation. “We need more of that” McConnell said. The downtown area continues to be a focus for the planning and the city. Incentive programs along the years has attracted over 100 businesses to make improvements downtown. “any outside investors judge your community at what the downtown looks like.” The next project for the downtown will be the revitalization of Gore street.

The Port of Algoma however is seen as one major investment that could result in “a lot of jobs”  “I can’t say an exact number, but lots of jobs” McConnell said.  The Port could once again transform the city with new subdivisions, apartment buildings, and businesses to serve those new jobs.  “It’s always been part of the city’s official plan that that area will become a major port facility” McConnell said all the right components are in place for the Port to become successful.  “Development attacks development and if you want to see a good example of that, look at the new hospital and the development surrounding the hospital” from new subdivisions to office buildings and retail continues to grow on the golden mile, there’s no doubt the city is growing north and west.

Although the planning department is there to assist council on zoning issues, the Sault Ste. Marie planning department also takes on the role of project management. A few examples of that is the Roberta Bondar park, the waterfront boardwalk and the now completed 25km John Rowswell hub trail. Those projects were handled in-house by planning and engineering departments.

Over the years the city has seen a “significant loss” since the q980’s and slowly rebounding but McConnell said the number one thing the city needs to do is get people to move here. “In five years time we won’t have enough people here to fill the jobs, we need to put programs in place to encourage and attract people to this city – that’s the number one issue facing this city right now”