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The waiting game

With no bridge, and the ferry in and out of service because of ice conditions, several Yellowknife businesses are feeling more and more frustrated. Extra Foods had to hire First Air's Hercules last week to haul six loads of groceries to restock its shelves, so it's no wonder the idea of a bridge over the mighty Mackenzie is gaining momentum in the capital.

Doug Ashbury
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Dec 15/00) - Businesses are crossing their fingers when it comes to getting their goods across the Mackenzie River.

But, they add, when you are running a business, finger crossing is not usually the best business plan.

"I haven't received freight for two weeks. If you walk around the store you can see it. There's nothing left in the middle isles," said Radio Shack Manager Marc Leclerc.

As of Wednesday, Leclerc had a truck full of stuff sitting on the other side of the Mackenzie. He adds flying it across is not an option because food gets priority.

Leclerc is crossing his fingers he will get his goods today (Friday) or Saturday.

"I have to wait. It's a waiting game and it's bad because it's Christmas."

At the downtown Westfair-owned Extra Foods, manager Steve Leonhardt said food is, for the first time, being flown in from Hay River aboard First Air's Hercules.

"I'd like to see a bridge (over the Mackenzie). That would be tremendous," he said.

Leonhardt said the added costs stemming from transportation disruptions at the Mackenzie are not passed on to consumers. But, he adds, Extra Foods is spending some of its profits.

"The way the (pricing) system is set up. We'd need people working all night to change prices. You can't change a specific store (prices)," he said.

Leonhardt adds even though it costs more to get food to Yellowknife, Yellowknifers are not subject to "that big a difference" in the prices they pay for food -- compared to stores down south. Prior to Extra Foods coming to town, groceries were notoriously expensive during freeze-up and ice-out.

Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce President John Ondrack said: "If we're going to have more (oil and gas) exploration, we're going to need more than a ferry.

"When we were in Ottawa, we were asked what the GNWT and private business were ready to put in -- what we were willing to anti-up for it."

Ondrack said the $3.7 million announced for bridge work on the Mackenzie Valley road network is good but "how many years have we needed a bridge" across the Mackenzie River?

He adds that Ottawa should take the view that building a bridge helps open up the North's resources and that makes its nation building which benefits all Canadians.

Rob Sasseville, part owner of Northern Metalic Sales, says when there's no ferry or ice bridge at the Mackenzie river, his business grinds to a halt.

"A lot of our business is out of town," he said.

That means Northern Metalic is moving goods from down south to destinations further north.

Much of the business is under contract pricing and that means any extra costs -- like chartering an aircraft -- are the responsibility of Northern Metalic.

There are times when customers will share the freight costs but the "bottom line is we lose," he said.

"Seventy-five per cent of our business is expediting through the back warehouse," he said. And if the goods are stuck at Hay River -- as of Wednesday about a truck and a half's worth of goods were -- the business is stalled here too, he said, adding this might mean temporary layoffs.

Overall, Sasseville said dealing with the uncertainty is "tricky and frustrating and it's very difficult to budget a ferry closure into your contract." Doing so would drive up costs and end up making a company uncompetitive, he adds.

"We wait, and cross our fingers."