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Fort William businesses losing $50k daily due to bridge closure

Friday February 28, 2014
Photos by Crystallee Mouland/Special to Wawatay News

Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs and Fort Willam Chief Georjann Morrisseou listen intently.
Photos by Crystallee Mouland/Special to Wawatay News

North of Superior Regional Chief Peter Collins takes the floor during an open forum on the swing bridge closure that connects Fort William First Nation and Thunder Bay.

Despite economic and safety impacts growing daily to Fort William First Nation and the City of Thunder Bay, the James Street swing bridge linking the communities together remains closed.

The bridge, owned by the Canadian National Railway Company (CN), has been closed to vehicular traffic since a fire damaged the bridge on Oct. 29. The bridge was the main route of travel for commuters between the First Nation and the city. To commute between the communities, residents must take a longer route.

The First Nation reports businesses in the community are losing an estimated $50,000 combined in revenue daily, a loss of 40 per cent.

The decrease in revenue has led to wage and hour reductions, higher home insurance rates, increased expenses to limited income earners, longer emergency response times and decreases to community safety.

CN Rail has not provided a timeline on when the bridge would open to the public. Its trains continue to use the bridge.

The impact of the bridge closure was discussed at an open forum in Fort William First Nation (FWFN) on Feb. 12.

Walter Bannon, Fort William’s director of economic development, said they learned via an impact assessment that its entire business sector consisting of catering, community halls, arenas and programs, construction, lawyers, professional office services, retailers, social services and tourism are being affected.

“In terms of the economic impacts, sales have been down about $50,000 a day massing to about $5.2 million dollars,” said Bannon. “Reduced revenue is reducing staffing at each business location.”

Bannon said businesses like bingo are down 25 per cent, community members have higher expenditures due to longer commutes.

Meanwhile, Costal Steel and McAshpalt have reported business losses and Westfort Village merchants in Thunder Bay said they are down 10 to 40 per cent, losing thousands of dollars daily.

“Companies will have to adjust their businesses to match reduced revenues and we have to look at solutions,” said Bannon. “One of the best things we are looking at is how to get CN to negotiate.”

But although First Nations and the city’s leaders were in attendance, Fort William Chief Georjann Morrisseau and Bannon said CN declined to attend the meeting. CN has told the First Nation an engineering report being conducted won’t be ready until March.

Bannon said the lack of response from CN has led to people talking about taking a stronger stance than just letter campaigning.

“Tonight, we heard of some things like a blockade and a $5.2 million revenue loss just alone in our community business sector that maybe a class action suit will wake them,” said Bannon.

Marlene Pierre of FWFN said she is not the type of person to suggest a blockade but if FWFN doesn’t get results then people better start thinking about one.

“Did I hear blockade?” said Pierre. “I think that’s what we might need to do and people better start thinking about it.”

The bridge closure has left the community with only one entrance and exit out of the community.

“If Fort William First Nation was a municipality this closure would not be tolerated,” said Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy. “It’s not only the inconvenience, it is a safety factor for children being bussed to the city.”

Beardy said he thinks CN is stalling in opening the bridge and is not considering the effects to residents of FWFN.

“CN is seen as a national Crown corporation,” Beardy said. “The government and corporation have an obligation to the City of Thunder Bay and FWFN people. They have to be reasonable to the First Nations people to give them safe access to the city.”

North of Superior Regional Chief Peter Collins said FWFN is letting CN off the hook too easily since CN was able to assess and open the bridge to rail traffic within three days of the bridge closure.

“CN helped to expropriate FWFN land for the benefit of CN and now it’s time for them to repay all the money they gained off those lands back to FWFN,” said Collins. “One of those payments is looking after that bridge.”

Collins said he will help with any resolutions needed to be brought forward to various ministries and he will support whatever initiatives FWFN takes.

“I hope we come to a solution and we as members take a tougher stance and start pushing back,” said Collins. “CN has pushed us around long enough it’s time for us to push back.”

Bannon and Morriseau both said they may conduct a full impact study and have the Ministry of Transportation investigate.

The open forum discussion results were gathered to go into an impact paper to be presented to Ottawa.

Morriseau and Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs said they offered financial help for studies conducted by CN but CN has yet to accept their offer.

They said in the future they would sit down to negotiate the possibility of building a new bridge with all interested parties.

“Right now we need to find the quickest solution to get that bridge open and running,” said Morriseau. “In the long term we can sit down with community partners and municipalities to see if a new bridge is feasible for everyone involved.”

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