It has been a challenging 10 months since the day North Star Studios made its grand entrance onto the local film production stage. Mitch Ouimette, the company's president, stepped into the spotlight, made some grandiose pronouncements and promised film industry prosperity in North Bay for years to come.
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There have been whispers around town questioning the legitimacy of North Star Studios, the purchase of the former Epiroc building and grounds in the West Ferris industrial park, and the company's possible capital shortfall issues almost since day one, all of which Ouimette, 35, claims are false.
"Transparency is what matters at the end of the day. We are tenants, we have leased the entire building, including the lands. The landlord isn't here, it's a company based out of Etobicoke. In an ideal world, we would not have encountered the delays with Epiroc in their move," Ouimette tells BayToday.
Epiroc's staff is to completely vacate the premises by June 1. The initial construction will see five film and television stages take up 68,000 of the 100,000 square feet available. The facility will also include office space for the production companies to use. Ouimette says $700,000 has already been invested in the building with more renovations to come.
"This project is going to happen," he adds. "You can quote me on that."
In May 2022, Ouimette was an unknown with little film industry experience surprised even municipal economic development movers and shakers with his bold statements in announcing this private enterprise that had seemingly materialized out of thin air. "This isn't a pipe dream down the road," he said then. "We've got a full slate already planned out until the end of the year and next year is already planned out, as well."
He also revealed North Star Studios planned to expand its studio footprint in North Bay by adding 500,000 square feet of support space over the next five to seven years.
"There is no place that is going to match what is going to come out of North Bay. This city will become the desire of Toronto, we're going to aim to compete with the likes of Atlanta and the likes of London [UK]. Toronto will become a passing thought by the time we're done building our infrastructure here," he said from a podium outside the Epiroc building at the event attended by MPP Vic Fedeli, local politicians, and Canadore College administrators George Burton and Frank Suraci and dozens more.
"We've become the victim of our own success before we can even open the door and take the [Epiroc] name off," he added then. "We already have to start looking at expansion ... This is stage one of a multi-stage process that will see a lot of new facilities in town."
The first production at the proposed Ferris Drive studio location was supposed to start last summer. It didn't.
The slow emptying of the Epiroc offices has kept North Star from putting its plans to offer studio space to production companies and has delayed the anticipated timeline, Ouimette says. The expectation is the last Epiroc employees will move out soon and the entire facility will be cleaned and renovated into studios — what would be the region's largest at approximately 100,000 square feet.
"Everything is moving, slightly slower than I would have hoped," admits Ouimette from North Star Studio's Commerce Court offices on Tuesday. "The reality is we didn't anticipate the challenges that Epiroc would face," to move out of its former offices to make way for North Star's promised movie studios. He says the sheer amount of "stuff" Epiroc has left behind in the building has created challenges in transforming the space.
Asked about any financing issues, Ouimette states, "This company has taken positions in some very expensive real estate in the city. You can't do that if you're broke. Sitting on the desk behind me are six binders, representing six projects we are fully financing and that are taking place in North Bay. We have three other projects that we are doing in Calgary right now. At some point in time, I hope to bring those people here. The reality is, those projects were already in motion, they required some financing assistance, and we stepped in to give them a hand."
Ouimette maintains nothing that was shared with the local dignitaries and the gathered media outside the Epiroc building that day at the end of May 2022 was untrue but he acknowledges not all of what was discussed that day will come to fruition — at least not in its originally intended way.
"It's a well-financed facility, it's a well-financed company. We're growing exponentially. We hired six people last week and we'll hire another five or six this week. We're a little behind schedule but it's not a catastrophe," he says.
Any future productions are free to leverage the available tax credits but Ouimette insists no tax dollars have gone into the company or the studio project. Fedeli supported that contention on Tuesday, saying, "We are not aware of any provincial dollars that have been delivered to North Star Studios, but we’re always looking for exciting NOHFC applications to grow our local economy."
During that May 2022 event, North Star Studios announced then it had struck a 24-month, $150-million film and television production deal with an ORWO Family production company that North Star estimated would result in $60 million in direct spending into the local economy and had the potential to eventually create up to 1,000 new full-time jobs.
Ouimette says only a handful of those ORWO productions are underway and the relationship with producer and actor Jake Seal, who helped broker the deal, has been strained by Seal's need to attend to other personal and business matters.
Despite the setbacks, Ouimette, who is supremely confident in his abilities and North Star's promise, doubles down and says the investment in North Bay will be there, as will the jobs as time goes on.
"We're here and we're not going anywhere anytime soon," he says. "We brought in a number of tier A and lower-end Hallmark stuff that's come through already. Most of it has been location-based, so we had two or three that we put into the [Epiroc] building begrudgingly because it's not ready for anybody. We've had a bunch of producers through here, including Carolyn McMaster from Calgary who is moving her operation to Ontario. We've also launched our own in-house documentary film team."
It's a long way from 1,000 but he says North Star presently employs 16 people. A few Canadore College graduates work on a documentary project in the next room as Ouimette speaks.
As far as all those promised jobs, Ouimette admits the numbers are "provincially dictated" and will take years to develop. "So, a 100,000-square-foot sound stage in the province of Ontario generates 3,000 jobs. The Ministry of Finance breaks it down to 1,800 jobs in the film industry and 1,200 indirect jobs. So, the direct jobs that we're talking about will be in and around 1,000. The number of indirect jobs will be exponential."
In another setback, a sports tourism offshoot of North Star, launched in 2022 has been put on the back burner, Ouimette confirms. He says his focus will be on the film production company.
Ten months ago, Canadore President George Burton said at the announcement the college was pleased that North Star Studios was establishing a presence in North Bay and the school looked forward to developing a relationship with the studio and production companies to meet their needs and provide training and mentorship opportunities for students.
Ouimette says the initial contact with Canadore was made through Frank Suraci, whose name continues to pop up in concert with recent large-scale projects the school is involved in such as the addictions treatment centre on Lakeshore Drive and an announced long-term care facility to be constructed on Canadore's main campus.
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"In northern Ontario, we don't have the established crews that are sitting in Toronto or Hamilton or Mississauga. We have to train them," says Ouimette about filling the gaps. "Without bringing people in, we might be able to staff two projects. I want the jobs and the opportunities here in northern Ontario."
Asked about the status of its relationship with North Star Studios, Canadore College responds it is "training people to work in the film and television industry at large, not just for one company. North Star Studios has recently hired new graduates of our Digital Cinematography program, which is good news. North Star Studios will continue with its own development plans."
Asked if he finds it concerning the local media is asking questions about him and his company, Ouimette chuckles and replies that it does not.
"What we've committed to, we're building. We've continued to expand our footprint. We've continued to hire people and make investments in North Bay. I don't come from North Bay and neither does Paul Walsh, my business partner. The proof is in the pudding at the end.
"I hear rumours on a daily basis about a furniture manufacturer moving into my building, the one we're leasing. To those who are saying that I look forward to moving into my building and buying a piece of furniture for my office. There are people in this city that are not going to accept that we're here. Frankly, I don't give a damn."