December 2, 2020 - What does high-speed internet service and snowmobiling have in common? No, it’s not a trick question. The Township of Manitouwadge, in partnership with Northern Broadband Wireless, found a way to combine the two by using a decommissioned rail bed, now turned multi-use trail. With the repurposing of the old rail bed, Manitouwadge became connected in more ways than one – both through broadband internet access and a snowmobile route linking it to other parts of the region.
The old rail bed, previously owned by Canadian Pacific Railway, was decommissioned, with the tracks removed, in the 1990s in response to the closure of Geco Mine. Following the decommission, the rail route was informally used for some recreational activities, such as hiking and mountain biking. In recent years, there has been a change in ownership, altering and formalizing the trail usage.
Approximately three years ago, the rail bed was acquired by Northern Broadband Wireless with the purpose of extending a Fibre Optic Network into the Township of Manitouwadge. The rail bed, which runs along Highway 614, provides a long, uninterrupted, and flat surface – perfect for both fibre optic cables and snowmobile treads. With the creation of this network, residents and businesses can now enjoy reliable, high-speed internet services throughout the Township. Key beneficiaries include “the schools, the hospital, and several other local companies.”
The new fibre optic connection provides many economic development opportunities for Manitouwadge to capitalize on, especially in the age of working from home. Broadband internet allows more people to work from home-based offices in the Township. Additionally, the trail allows continued access for forestry activities. As the trail is surrounded by the boreal forest, this access is crucial for the economic activities of Manitouwadge and surrounding areas.
On the other hand, the integration of the old rail bed into a snowmobiling network will provide many tourism opportunities for the Township. For example, the 55 kilometres of trail connects with the nearby town of Marathon and creates a link for snowmobilers to travel between the two hubs. Previously, there was no round-trip link between Marathon and Manitouwadge. A more long-term goal is to further extend the network to include Greenstone in the looped network of trails. The new loop acts to provide a larger tourism incentive, as snowmobilers prefer to travel in a loop, rather than on the same trail there-and-back. This winter, the rail trail will be formally groomed and cleared, and it will be recognized under the Ontario Federation of Snowmobiler Clubs as a route. The trail also creates economic and tourism opportunities for communities along the route.
In the warmer months, the trail is still informally used for recreational activities such as ATVing, walking and hiking, and mountain biking. For example, to visit a waterfall west of Manitouwadge called Small Falls, hikers partially walk on the old rail bed, perhaps even spotting remnants of an old railway camp along the way.
Manitouwadge already has a comprehensive, four season trail system spanning over 1000 square kilometers. The Township is in the process of developing a Multi-use Trails Master Plan, in consultation with the public, to identify new trail opportunities and enhancements. The Master Plan will receive public feedback on trail usage and work to better establish the trail system in the town and surrounding regions – again, further aiding in tourism marketing and attraction efforts. Leisure activities in the summer and fall months could be an avenue to further expand upon, and develop, in the future.
The partnership between the Township of Manitouwadge and Northern Broadband Wireless is a success story in itself. Both recognized the need for high-speed internet to further develop Manitouwadge’s economic capacity, while also capitalizing on tourism opportunities to again aid in creating business opportunities for the region. Manitouwadge’s expanding tourism sector, catering towards visitors interested in outdoor adventures, and their developing business sector, aided by broadband, leaves the Township in a favourable economic position moving forward.
Mercedes Labelle is a Policy Analyst at NPI.
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