Churchill Economic Development Tour | Exploring Economic Potential in Manitoba Tourism Hotspot

Jul 8, 2024 | Economic Development Tours, Events, Front Page

The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce recently concluded the 11th iteration of its Economic Development Tours with the second visit to Churchill since 2019. With a group of 38 business, community and government leaders, the majority of whom had never visited Churchill before, this was the largest delegation that has participated in one of the Chamber tours. The tour highlighted the resilience and potential of this northern community, offering a glimpse into its economic potential as a conduit for Manitoban exports and as a tourism hotspot. 

Churchill Community and Current Industry 

Mayor Mike Spence welcomed the business delegation to Churchill, emphasizing the community’s efforts in building the town and taking control of the trade corridor. Churchill, strategically located 90 miles from Nunavut, faces both challenges and opportunities due to climate change. These include changes to the bear season affecting tourism and to the flow of goods due to sea ice patterns. Mayor Spence noted the economic possibilities for the town are large given the past investments in infrastructure in the community that befitted a town much larger than its current population of around 900 people. 

Angela Cassie from Travel Manitoba spoke about the importance of reconciliation in the Manitoba tourism story. Churchill, known as the polar bear capital of the world, also boasts beluga and northern lights to lure visitors. With an estimated impact of $41 million to Manitoba’s GDP, Churchill plays a notable role in the province’s $1.8 billion tourism industry given that 95% of visitors are from outside the province, and 34% come from overseas. Travel Manitoba is working closely with Destination Canada to attract visitors from outside the country, promoting ethical wildlife viewing and sustainable tourism. 

Town Centre Facility is a Bustling Hub 

Jessica Power, Churchill’s CAO, guided participants around the expansive town centre facility, showcasing the theatre, school, library, youth drop-in centre, fitness centre, indoor playground, daycare, bowling alley, and health care centre. The town centre is a hub of activity, catering to the needs of the community and enhancing the quality of life for residents. 

Historical Significance 

Participants next visited Cape Merry, part of the Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site. Eric from Parks Canada provided insight into the historical and geological significance of the area. The Hudson’s Bay Company built a stone fortress on the west side of the Churchill River mouth back in 1731, demonstrating the strategic importance of the location and the structure is still visible today. 

A Taste of the Wildlife Experience 

A Beluga Tour via Lazy Bear Expeditions provided an up-close experience with the 52,000 Belugas in the Churchill area. The Belugas are an import draw for international tourists as they enter the Churchill river once the ice has melted. 

Port of Churchill Economic Potential 

Michael Woelcke, CEO of the Arctic Gateway Group, guided the delegation on a tour of the Port of Churchill, which was originally built in 1929. This port was once a busy hub, annually moving over 600,000 tons of grain with 22 ships departing during the shipping season. However, this trade came to a halt in 2017 when the town’s rail connection was washed out. Since 2018, significant investments from both provincial and federal governments have been made to upgrade the Hudson Bay Railway, effectively reconnecting Manitoba with international shipping routes. 

The port itself has also seen recent investments, including a new facility that is storing zinc concentrate destined for Europe. This pilot project aims to demonstrate the feasibility of transporting minerals from Northern Manitoba through the port, potentially sparking increased activity in the coming years. 

The tour also showcased the inventory of trucks and materials that form a small part of the $500 million worth of goods shipped to Nunavut each year. There is growing interest in increasing the supply of goods to Nunavut communities via Churchill, as the majority of goods currently travel through the St. Lawrence Seaway as was necessitated due to the railway washout. Lastly, the port is set to welcome a tour ship from Greenland in mid-July, further highlighting its potential as a tourism hotspot. 

Sustainable Tourism 

The delegation was also treated to a ride on a ‘Tundra Buggy’ operated by Frontiers North Adventures. The company, led by John Gunter, operates a fleet of twelve of these vehicles for expeditions, two of which are electric powered. As part of the wildlife viewing journeys they lead, they track their polar bear sightings providing data to researchers who help protect these animals. They’ve also expanded their tourism experiences to include Beluga whale and Northern Lights tours. As a certified BCorp, they’ve seen increased profitability from improving their social responsibility and reducing their environmental impact; this led to more direct bookings rather than commissioned sales. 

Arctic Innovations 

The tour stopped by the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, which was established in 1976 as an independent non-profit that conducts research and provides public programming on Northern science. They provide accommodations for researchers and have a hydroponic greenhouse that provides fresh vegetables weekly. The facility is designed to minimize light pollution for Northern Lights viewing and has unique design elements such as a solar wall for passive heating and carbon dioxide monitoring for optimized air exchanges. They also share their grounds with a former test rocket launch site. 

New Developments in Town 

The last formal tour was of Churchill Wild where owner Mike Reimer explained the company history as a retail store that was moved from Arborg to Churchill before becoming the wildlife adventure tour company they are today. The company is constructing the Blueberry Inn in Churchill as a hub for their tours, which is expected to be fully operational by October. The company has a significant philanthropic streak, having raised $3 million for the community elder care facility. They embody the pioneering entrepreneurial spirit that Churchill is known for. 

Join Us on Our Next Economic Development Tour! 

The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce invites you to join the upcoming Economic Development Tours in the fall, starting with Portage La Prairie & Neepawa in September. Experience firsthand the economic development highlights of Manitoba’s communities and contribute to their growth and prosperity. Let’s work together to showcase all of Manitoba’s successes and exciting potential! Register now for upcoming tours!

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