Brown marks final day as Atikokan mayor after long career

ATIKOKAN — For the first time in two decades, Dennis Brown woke up and wasn't the mayor of Atikokan.

Brown, the long-time head of community's council, chose not to seek-relection and had his final term come to a close on Monday.

“I don’t have quite as much work to do," he said on Tuesday. "Time waits for nobody, my time was up.”

Brown said he decided not to seek the job again because he’s been on council for too long.

“I was there for 38 years. I was a reeve, I was a councillor, and then I became mayor. So I think I just did enough work, I thought it was time to bring in somebody else,” he said.

Brown said newly elected mayor Rob Ferguson will be good for Atikokan, bringing eight years of experience on council.

The next challenge for the community will be trying to get more people to come to the area, Brown said.

“At one time, when the mine was operating, we had close to 7,000 people. Now we’re down to 2,800 and we need more people and that kind of thing but, it doesn’t happen very easy,” he said.

Michael McKinnon, the publisher of the Atikokan Progress newspaper since 1986, said Brown is going to be missed.

“He’s known across the province. For a small-town mayor to be that well known is pretty unusual,” McKinnon said. “[Brown] has overseen a major set of changes in Atikokan.”

McKinnon said Brown’s legacy would be work on reviving the forest industry around Atikokan starting in 2008, and the conversion of Ontario Power Generation plant from coal to biomass.

“We had two mills in town, and both went down. He pushed hard to get Resolute back in the Atikokan area and to save the small mill in town that’s now producing wood pellets for Ontario Power Generation,” McKinnon said. “On the latter, he led council to take over the building when the previous owner went bankrupt and receivers were knocking at the door, which was a big step for a small town to take.”

McKinnon said Brown’s other success story was working with then-MPP Bill Mauro to keep the Atikokan OPG plant running by converting it to biomass.

“In the early 2000s, all three political parties stated they wanted to close the coal fired generating station here in Atikokan, and Dennis and Bill Mauro worked incredibly hard for six years to make a future for both those operations and the Atikokan [plant is] still going,” McKinnon said.

The Atikokan station was built in the early 80’s and a lot newer than Thunder Bay’s OPG plant, which has been shut down.

“[The Atikokan Plant] probably still has 20 to 25 years of reliable life left,” he said. “Walking away from that would have been a disaster locally and probably a poor move on the part of the province financially.”

Brown also pointed to keeping mills and the OPG plant running as his most important accomplishments for the community.

McKinnon said he’s watched Brown grow and improve his political skills pretty steadily over those 40 years.

“He was much more combative in his younger days and got a lot more collaborative,” he said. “Probably the generating station and the forest industry thing are what helped him realize that that more collaborative approach can be more effective.”

McKinnon said it required a determined push from the mayor and council here to get these things done.

“[Brown] was the one doing the pushing. Every Liberal cabinet member he could get his hands on was in Atikokan, he had them all on his speed dial,” he said. “They certainly knew who he was and what the plant meant to Atikokan and the need to find a creative solution. You know?”

So what’s next for Brown?

“I’m looking after my house. I’m all by myself with my house,” said Brown. So I have to shovel, do a lot of cleaning. I like to walk everyday, and do things around town, have coffee with people and so on.”

Brown said at 84 years old, he doesn’t want to work anymore but will volunteer if needed.

“I’ll serve as a person that can do anything the town needs to get done. If they need somebody to run to Thunder Bay to get something, I’ll do it without charging them, only for the gas and that kind of thing.”

Eric Shih, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Thunder Bay Source