A war of words between the local MLA and the province's largest forestry company has people in the Miramichi Valley wondering what's next for the local economy.

People in Doaktown say they hope J.D. Irving Ltd. will eventually go ahead with a $25 million replacement for its aging sawmill in the village.

But there's less consensus on Progressive Conservative MLA Jake Stewart's call for the Liberal government to "stick it" to Irving and force the company to start the project.

Kevin Betts

Business owner Kevin Betts says he's hopeful Irvings will build the new mill. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

"I think Jake is speaking the truth, and government has to quit bowing over to Irving in a lot of aspects," said Art O'Donnell, a municipal councillor in Doaktown.

But Kevin Betts, the owner of the Village Family Restaurant, was more inclined to give Irving the benefit of the doubt.

Art O'Donnell

Doaktown village Coun. Art O'Donnell says the government has to stop bowing to Irving. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

"Jim Irving's done a lot of investing here in the area," he said. "I know he loves the area. Hopefully, he'll be able to negotiate some kind of a deal to get this going."

New mill postponed several times

Irving said last week it was postponing the project because of "market conditions" and the recent imposition of U.S. duties on Canadian softwood.

Stewart, the MLA for Southwest Miramich-Bay du Vin, was furious. He said Premier Brian Gallant should force Irving to honour its 2014 commitment.

Norm Betts

Former PC finance minister Norm Betts, who is from Doaktown, says MLA Jake Stewart is asking a legitimate question about the mill replacement. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

"He's been accusing us of being a friend of big business every day," Stewart said Thursday.

"This is his chance to stick it to big business for the benefit of people in Doaktown and Miramichi, who've been getting the shaft on forestry."

The Doaktown project was one of several mill upgrades Irving promised when it signed a contract with the previous Progressive Conservative government in 2014 for access to more wood from publicly owned Crown land.

The company has gone ahead with other mill upgrades but has put off the Doaktown project several times. The current mill, built in the 1950s, is running at full employment and full capacity, the company said Friday.

Kevin Betts said his restaurant and other businesses would get a boost if the mill were replaced with a modern facility.

"We might change out our kitchen here in the restaurant, for instance, or build larger seating," he said. "It would reassure us that those jobs are going to be here and we can invest back into our town."

Wood supply uncertainty dealt with

Former PC finance minister Norm Betts, who is from Doaktown, said in a weekend tweet that JDI co-CEO Jim Irving had "lied" to his hometown in 2014.

"I was there [at the announcement] in 2014," he said. "We were going to break sod in 2015, and in 2015 it was going to be 2016, and February 2017 it was going to be this summer, and now we hear 'Trust me.'

"So I think it's a very legitimate question. … You have to become a little suspicious."

Doaktown sawmill

Doaktown residents are hopeful J.D. Irving will replace the aging sawmill as announced in 2014. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Norm Betts was the chair of a provincial task force on Crown lands that recommended in 2011 that industry get a more predictable wood supply.

He said the lack of a reliable supply was the "market condition" that Irving and other companies wanted addressed.

"The uncertainty that was presented and was dealt with was wood supply," Norm Betts said.

He said the industry promised to "deal with the uncertainties of the market" if the province dealt with wood supply.

"That was the deal."

Deal based on tradeoff

That tradeoff was the basis for the 2014 forestry plan by the PC government of David Alward. It featured signed agreements with forestry companies, including a 25-year contract with J.D. Irving Ltd.

Irving was hit earlier this month with a 9.9 per cent duty on its softwood exports to the United States. That's lower than the 20.8 per cent duty being applied to other New Brunswick sawmills.

Norm Betts said it is unfortunate that Stewart and Irving had traded strong accusations.

"This is a good business that does good work and major investments in our community, but they made a commitment. … Answer to those good people on the Miramichi."

Some mayors support MLA

On Friday, Doaktown Mayor Bev Gaston accused Stewart of not meeting with him for more than a year and not visiting the Irving mill since 2014.

His comments were similar to those by Jim Irving in a written statement released Friday afternoon. Irving said Stewart was engaging in "self-serving grandstanding."

Gaston was out of town Monday but two other mayors in Stewart's riding supported the MLA.

Doaktown mill

J.D. Irving says it is still committed to building a new mill pending the outcome of the softwood dispute. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

"He's trying to get attention to the issue," said Upper Miramichi Mayor Douglas Munn. "I can't blame him for grandstanding."

Blackville Mayor Chris Hennessey called Stewart "a tireless advocate" for the riding.

"I support him in this," Hennessey said. "JDI has made an agreement and they must honour this agreement."

Irving said Friday its commitment to the new mill remains "firm," pending the outcome of the softwood dispute and "market conditions."

Stewart said Monday he would not be commenting further on the issue for the time being.