Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Snow Lake's hopes for growth in doubt

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SNOW LAKE -- What if they had a resource boom and nobody came, at least permanently?

While Snow Lake is the talk of the north, there are sincere questions over whether its mineral-fuelled future will broaden the population or effectively make the town Manitoba's biggest transient mining camp.

If all goes as planned, and if the most optimistic employment projections hold, Snow Lake and area will in the next few years add 600-plus well-paying jobs. Some suggest the town's population, currently between 800 and 900, might triple.

We have all read about Lalor, HudBay's next flagship mine, just outside Snow Lake. But there is also the Reed mine, mostly owned by HudBay, a facility to extract leftover gold from old mine tailings, and the long-discussed potential restart of the former New Britannia gold mine.

At least some of those workers will have no choice but to live in Snow Lake, but many others will be able to commute given the "days on, days off" workforce scheduling of modern mining.

Snow Lake is remote, but it's not that remote. It's a two-hour drive from both The Pas and Flin Flon, and only another half-hour if you're travelling from Thompson. And the mine development contractors who have been coming to town have ventured in from points much farther.

"Sure there are naysayers in the community who believe it will become a camp," concedes Marc Jackson, the bald, bespectacled editor of the local newspaper.

While Jackson doesn't share their cynicism, it is not wholly unsurprising. The brutally cyclical nature of mining has pulverized many Snow Lakers' optimism to the point they are afraid to dream even as they sit on hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars of zinc, copper and gold.

And just look around the quaint streets. As bustling as Snow Lake is, there are more than 35 homes for sale when, one would expect, based on all the "boom town" headlines, there should be a major crunch.

It's not helpful that the asking prices are ostensibly inflated. Whereas the pre-Lalor era saw homes go for $10,000 to $25,000, sellers are now seeking $80,000 to $90,000 for mid-range homes and as much as $350,000 for high-end properties.

"At this point some people are looking for more than a reasonable amount for their homes," says Jackson, a retirement-aged former town councillor. "If Lalor was operating and living up to the hype we've heard over the past five years (since its discovery), I would feel differently. Having said that, you can't blame people for trying to get all that they can for a home; it is a matter of striking while the iron is hot."

Of course if Snow Lake is to grow, incoming workers will have to do more than just buy existing homes. They will have to roll the dice and build new.

Over the last year, Jackson says, only about four or five homes have gone up or moved in, along with a number of trailers. In the outlying subdivisions, there are probably another two cottages under various stages of construction.

"The level of construction is low, but not surprisingly," Jackson says. "Snow Lake is a mining town and one that has been down to the depths of despair several times."

Still, it's tough to downplay the fact that requests for proposals are out to develop as many as 150 new residential lots, and a much-needed 18-unit retirement condo is under construction.

More growth may happen once HudBay closes a 200-bed camp it operates for workers at the Lalor site. The company has long insisted the camp is temporary and that its preference will be for Lalor workers to live in Snow Lake.

In the end, Jackson expects that will happen to a large degree.

"Even if mining companies make it easy for workers to commute, many will begin to see this town for what it is: a centrally located, safe, secure and beautiful place to raise children and recreate," he says.

Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 6, 2012 A16

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