Sarnia is the largest city in Lambton County, which extends from the shores of Lake Huron in the north to the Lake St. Clair in the south. Nearly 60% of the county’s population is concentrated there, with the remaining 40% distributed across 2,800 square kilometers (695 sq mi) of the rest of the county. The sparsely populated county was, however, the site of North America’s first commercially drilled oil well. Petrochemical and refining industries are still its largest manufacturing and employment sector, and Sarnia-Lambton considers itself the center of the Great Lakes Industrial Corridor. The other mainstays of the economy are agriculture and tourism.
With this successful industrial base, Sarnia-Lambton focuses its development efforts on connecting the excluded to economic opportunity and spurring the innovation that can keep its industry strong.
The rural areas of the region have benefited from the long commitment of rural telecom operators, Brooke Telecom and Hay Communications, to their markets. Both companies continuously expand their fiber networks to rural residential markets; Brook Telecom is offering a 1 Gbps connection for C$99.95 to villlages of fewer than 1,500 residents. Business customers in the Sarnia metro area are benefiting from a 2015 decision by BlueWater Power, a local power distribution company, to launch a fiber network division.
In July 2016, the provincial and federal governments announced initial funding for a plan to build an ultra-high-speed network serving 300 mainly rural communities in southwestern Ontario. The South-Western Integrated Fiber Technology (SWIFT) program will take 25 years to complete at a cost of C$5 billion. Lambton County has been an active driver of the program and has budgeted C$1 million as a contribution toward construction costs in its territory.
STEM Education for First Nations Youth
Lambton County is home to three First Nation communities, each with a fast-growing youth population. Two nonprofits have targeted middle-school children in these communities for science, technology, engineering and math education in partnership with the University of Waterloo. The partners present classroom workshops during the school year and operate a STEM day camp during the summer. For the past 10 years, about 75 university students have served as instructors, while members and elders of the First Nations serve as counselors, who integrate cultural experiences into the STEM teaching.
The library system of the county is bringing STEM practices of a different sort to its patrons with the opening of a Makerspace, equipped with laser cutter, vinyl cutter, 3D printer, book binder and a variety of robots for patrons to experiment with. A group of creative industry entrepreneurs have formed Makers Artists, Designers and Entrepreneurs (MADE) Lambton to help turn the interest engendered by the Makerspace into careers.
Innovating on an Agricultural Foundation
Sarnia-Lambton is home to the federally-funded Bioindustrial Innovation Canada, and the public-private Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park, a joint venture among the county, the city and Western University. Each seeks to build on the region’s combined base of petrochemical, chemical and agriculture industries.
The latest project in this area is the Cellulosic Sugar Producers Cooperative. Farmers in the Cooperative have worked with federal and provincial agencies, Western University and private-sector companies to research opportunities and develop a business plan for converting agricultural waste into cellulosic sugars. There is a ready market for these sugars in making multiple products. In 2016, the Cooperative announced that it would partner with Comet Biorefining to build a commercial-scale plant at the TransAlta Energy Park in Sarnia-Lambton. Expected to begin operation in 2018, the plant will produce 27 million kilograms of destrose sugar syrup per year from corn stalks and wheat straw, and the Cooperative has signed agreements with a buyer to use the product in producing personal care products, plasticizers and polymers.
Reaching down to excluded communities and up to new technology applications for its heritage industries, Sarnia-Lambton is building an economy that serves not just its industrial center but the dispersed population of its rural areas through the power of broadband.
Smart21 2016 | 2017