A beefed-up board has been appointed to the Communities Economic Development Fund (CEDF) and a mandate letter has been sent, outlining the new role it is about to assume as the province’s economic development agency for Northern Manitoba.

These are effectively the first concrete steps taken to implement the Manitoba government’s economic growth action plan announced almost four months ago.

In the mandate letter to new board chairman Jamie Wilson, Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Blaine Pedersen is asking for a review of the CEDF’s current loan program to see if it’s meeting the needs of economic development in Northern Manitoba and to submit a "robust analysis and recommendations" to the government by the end of the first half of this year.

Based in Thompson, the CEDF has been around since 1975 and is a developmental lender to small enterprises in the North. In 2016, the last year for which numbers are available, the CEDF made close $10 million worth of loans, with commercial fishery concerns accounting for about $4 million.

The selection of the CEDF as the agency to assist in northern development as part of the province’s co-ordinated approach to economic development was endorsed more than a year ago, when the province’s Look North task force reviewing the northern economy published its report.

Including Wilson, new appointees to the board are Chuck Davidson, CEO of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce; Becky Cianflone, executive director of Community Futures Greenstone in Flin Flon; Doug Lauvstad, president and vice-chancellor of the University College of the North; and Colleen Smook, mayor of Thompson.

Pedersen was adamant his department is not pre-judging or nudging the new board in one direction or another, but that maybe the exercise will cause a bit of a shift in focus.

They have had a presence in the North all along," he said. "What we are asking from them is to actively become economic development partners and to be proactive in terms of going out and finding those businesses or working with businesses that show interest in the North.

Oswald Sawh, the CEDF’s chief executive officer since 2013, said the organization is up for the challenge.

"It’s exciting," he said.

Our mandate is to encourage economic development in the area. We have chosen over the years to fulfil that by way of developmental loans. We never thought that was the only thing we can do. I think these changes feed into that narrative.

Wilson is the former deputy minister of education and training (and prior to that, he was the deputy minister of Pedersen’s department). In the fall, he was named vice-president of corporate development at the Arctic Gateway Group, the new owners of the Hudson Bay Railway.

"In the work done establishing the Look North strategy, there were a few things that stood out as important to northern economic development — education and entrepreneurship. Finding ways to develop, encourage and financially support entrepreneurs in the North is critical, and if there is an ‘access to capital’ problem in Manitoba, it is most acute in the North," he said.

The economy of Northern Manitoba has been knocked on its heels over the past few years with the closures and imminent closures of mines and metal-processing operations, the disruption and uncertainty over the operation of the Hudson Bay Railway, the coming windup of Manitoba Hydro construction projects in the North and other issues.

Davidson, who co-chaired the Look North task force, said he believes the CEDF is the ideal vehicle to try to undertake a more co-ordinated, region-wide effort.

"Part of what we always envisioned at Look North was that you needed to have a lead agency in terms of doing economic development. That was one of our main recommendations to government," he said.

And rather than creating an entirely new organization, I’m glad to see government is going in this direction.

Pedersen would not comment on budgets or funding requirements. He said a funding proposal is before the Treasury Board for approval.

It is anticipated the province is also close to articulating partnership scenarios with World Trade Centre, North Forge Technology Exchange, Economic Development Winnipeg, Winnipeg Metropolitan Region (which promotes tourism and economic development in the capital region) and Travel Manitoba, all of which were named as strategic partners in the province’s action plan on economic growth.