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Elliot Lake Mall Collapse: Community's Economy Reels From Disaster

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ELLIOT LAKE COLLAPSE
The town of Elliot Lake will also have to contend with the economic impact of losing one of the town's major shopping centres. | AP

As residents of Elliot Lake, Ont., grieve the loss of two community members killed in a collapse of their mall's roof, they are also dealing with a massive blow to the city's economy.

When a section of the Algo Centre Mall caved in Saturday it meant the destruction of not only a significant portion of the city's retail shops, but also the library, one of two grocery stores, one of two hotels, the health unit office, a funeral services office, a gym and several government service offices.

"The mall was a huge hub of the community," Elliot Lake Mayor Rick Hamilton said in an interview. "It's going to have a huge economic impact, not having the mall in operation."

Officials have not yet come up with a specific monetary estimate of what the devastating collapse will mean to the small community's economy, but it will be significant, they say.

The affected businesses run the gamut from small, locally owned shops to major retailers such as Zellers and FoodLand.

Sobeys, the parent company of FoodLand, has already announced it will rebuild and will pay its employees for up to six months while that happens.

About 250 people are out of work because of the mall's destruction.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Labour said Friday it's too early to tell whether the centre will eventually reopen.

Structural engineers are reassessing the structure and will issue recommendations on how to handle what's left of the building, Tom Zach said in a morning news conference.

But he stressed the decision to scrap or salvage the mall will come down to its owner.

"The decision may be that the building gets demolished (but) that's not our call," he said.

Spa owner Christine Abela said she will really be feeling the pinch, financially. She will be moving out of her home and in with a friend to lower her living expenses.

"We'll band together, do what we can," said Abela, 40. "(We'll) reduce our expenses, keep our overhead as low as we can and hopefully we can ride through whatever may happen."

The local chamber of commerce set up a committee soon after the collapse to provide support to the affected businesses. A staff member has been designated to help owners look for new land and property on which to rebuild.

Todd Stencill, the chamber's general manager, said staff and volunteers have contacted people from each business to make sure they have called their insurance companies, their bankers and point of sale representatives.

The chamber of commerce held a seminar this week at which counsellors talked about dealing with grief, Service Canada staff talked about how to apply for Employment Insurance and workers from the food bank talked about how to access its services.

The East Algoma Community Futures Development Corporation, an area economic development agency, has approved a transitional loan of up to $25,000 with no interest for any of the affected businesses.

Premier Dalton McGuinty visited Elliot Lake in the aftermath of the collapse and sat in on one of the chamber committee's meetings Thursday morning, Stencill said.

McGuinty told them the province would try to break through any rigid program requirements to get the community and businesses financial help.

By Monday, Stencill said he hopes to have a business resource centre up and running.

"This community has what it takes," he said in an interview.

"When we lost our mines and we re-established ourselves as a community that was based and geared around retirement living you see why we were able to rebuild. I see us being able to step right back there and rebuild again."

In the meantime, the community will have to figure out how to get by without all the services that were available in the mall.

Resident Judy Pine said with the mall gone it's difficult to find some items, such as underwear and children's clothing.

Some residents who are travelling to Sudbury — the closest sizable community at 160 kilometres away — are getting requests from others to pick up necessities such as socks, she said.

"Right now we're pretty much stranded for clothing," Pine said.

As the city of about 12,000 people deals with the deaths of two women in the mall collapse, they do so without their social centre.

"It was a community hub, if I can simply put it that way," Hamilton said.

"Everybody would go to the mall at least once a week, some daily. It was a gathering place...If you went downtown you almost always ended up in the mall. That's just kind of how it is in a small community."

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