One community in northwestern Ontario is pinning its hopes on small business to bring it more economic prosperity.

Atikokan has struggled for many years, particularly since two large iron mines shut down four decades ago.

The town is a far cry from its heydey in the 1960s, when the population was more than twice what it is now, and two mines employed thousands.

But, the town’s economic development advisor Gord Knowles feels the community is turning the page.

“I see opportunity. I see … places that, at one point, had success, and they’re [now] a blank canvas for anyone to get a business going that’s to their niche and to their specialty,” he said.

“So, to me, that’s exciting.”

Atikokan ‘has to change’

Spencer Meany, who runs the XY Paddle Company — started by his father more than 40 years ago — says every business, no matter how small, contributes to economic prosperity.

“Traditionally, you know, it’s a blue collar town — mining and forestry and stuff,” he said.

“But, in order for sustainability, it has to change. You can’t wait for the next mine or for the next logging company to keep us afloat.”

The curator of Atikokan Centennial Museum noted the 1960s were a heyday of sorts for the town.

“That was Atikokan’s decade, when the town absolutely blossomed,” Lois Fenton said.

“It blossomed in population, and all of the sideline things that happened with development of industry, and the community spirit is still here.”

It is hoped that same community spirit will invigorate the small business sector — and Meany said many in the area have finally realized that it’s small businesses, and not a large factory, that will help the community survive.

At one time, Atikokan had nearly 8,000 residents, but the 2011 census puts the population at 2,700, and declining.

Major employers in the area include an Ontario Power Generation plant, the Rentech wood pellet plant and Resolute sawmill. Resolute is located outside Atikokan, and not all employees live in Atikokan

Economically, the town has been through a lot — with promised new mines (Hammond Reef, Bending Lake Iron) that never materialized, as well as sawmill shutdowns, such as Atikokan Forest Products.