Officials from the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, currently conducting an input-gathering tour of communities across the province, met with an audience of Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce representatives, local elected officials, business people and Sault College administrators Friday.
The event, held at The Grand Gardens on Dennis Street, was billed as The Sault Ste. Marie Session of the Ontario Chamber's Economic Leadership Series, in preparation for the Ontario Economic Summit.
Under the direction of Ontario Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Allan O'Dette and Queen's University Executive Decision Centre Director Erik Lockhart, local leaders split into brainstorming groups and were encouraged to submit lists of what they perceive to be the community's main priorities over the next two to three years.
The final objective was to agree upon four major priorities for Sault Ste. Marie, with suggestions on how to move forward on those priorities, for presentation by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce at the Ontario Economic Summit, to be held November 6 to 8, 2013 in Niagara-on-the-Lake with Premier Kathleen Wynne, most of the provincial cabinet, and CEO's of Canadian banks and other major companies.
The four major priorities identified at Friday's session are multi-modal transportation for trade purposes (including the community's need for a deep-water port), workforce development (with an emphasis on skilled trades training), attraction and retention of professional immigrants and assisting small and medium-size local businesses export their goods.
It was also agreed that there needs to be youth mentoring, gathering youth feedback, and retention of young people graduating from local postsecondary institutions.
In his remarks, O'Dette described the need to attract skilled immigrants to Sault Ste. Marie and the rest of Ontario as crucial, with the number of baby boomer retirements expected to increase over the next two to three years.
O'Dette stated 50 percent of skilled immigrants have already opted to live and work in Alberta instead of Ontario.
The Ontario Chamber of Commerce President and CEO added that only seven percent of Ontario's small to medium-size businesses are engaged in exporting their goods.
O'Dette said such companies, including those in Sault Ste. Marie, must try to export to China and its consumers, which number in the hundreds of millions.
He added that the U.S. market is not to be counted out and is expected to rebound, stating that a great deal of trade is already happening between Ontario and the State of Kentucky alone.
Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Debbie Amaroso commented that she, Sault Ste. Marie MP Bryan Hayes and Sault Ste. Marie MPP David Orazietti meet regularly in roundtable discussions, and O'Dette encouraged the Northern Ontario Large Urban Mayors (NOLUM) to keep pressing the Northern agenda to the provincial government at Queen's Park.
Hayes and Orazietti also attended Friday's event.
Amaroso said she hopes to see the massive Ring of Fire project become a reality, stating that Sault Ste. Marie would benefit from shipping chromite through the community through a deep-water port.
O'Dette, for his part, is urging development of the Ring of Fire, stating if the area is not developed and its chromite not mined, chromite markets in other countries of the world would capitalize on a missed opportunity for Ontario.
Regarding the need for immigrants trained in skilled trades, and as to why more Canadian-born people have difficulty in obtaining apprenticeship training, Hayes told SooToday.com: "Our government's policy is and always will be Canadians first for Canadian jobs, but the reality is that there are a number of jobs out there that are not able to be filled by Canadians."
"The challenge in Sault Ste. Marie for apprentices is finding an employer that will give apprentices the number of hours they need to complete their training, because a lot of our work in Sault Ste. Marie, in construction for example, is cyclical in nature. We need a methodology to move an apprentice from one program to another so they get the necessary number of hours. We've been working on that, and it's pretty challenging."
Orazietti told us: "Essar Steel Algoma has ramped up the number of apprenticeship spaces available."
"The province has provided a training tax credit of $15,000 for apprentices and created additional spaces in our colleges to help people get the skilled training they need."
"We're working very hard to give people born and raised in this part of the province the support they need to get access to postsecondary training in skilled trades with 30 percent tuition reduction and reintroduction of grants."
"We've also helped create new positions and purchased new equipment for local businesses like China Steel, Rector Machine Works and Soo Foundry."
While both men were in attendance, Hayes and Orazietti were asked by SooToday.com if funding would be coming to help Sault Ste. Marie repair infrastructure damage caused by this week's heavy rain.
Hayes said it is up to the municipality and the province to apply for aid if it is considered needed.
"At this stage we have not had 'the ask,' but if we do get the ask it will be explored at that time."
Orazietti told us a municipality, in order to receive infrastructure repair funding from the province after strong weather damage, must declare a state of emergency within a 14-day period and submit estimates of what the cost would be to the appropriate Ministries.
The City of Sault Ste. Marie has not, to date, declared a state of emergency.