The Thing5 call centre in Bathurst closed about eight months after receiving Invest NB funding. (CBC)

Invest NB officials are defending how they handled job creation incentives for a troubled call centre company in northern New Brunswick last year.

Representatives of the provincial agency appeared before the Standing Committee on Crown Corporations for the first time on Wednesday and fielded questions about the decision to help Thing5 create 51 jobs in Bathurst.

The $275,000 in payroll rebates and $77,000 for leasehold improvements came just as the company was closing some smaller call centres, including Hillsborough, St-Louis-de-Kent, Neguac, and Rogersville.

About eight months later, Thing5 announced it was closing the Bathurst location after having slowly cut back its staff to six positions.

But Invest NB did not lose any tax dollars, executive vice-president Mark Haines-Lacey said.

"We went back and got $77,000 that had been forwarded to the company for capital expenditures. So we went and retrieved that money," he said.

The $275,000 in payroll rebates was never paid out because the Bathurst jobs were not maintained, officials said, suggesting that proves the agency's new way of subsidizing businesses carries less risk of taxpayer loss.

No new money until layoffs reversed

Thing5 still employs 600 people at 10 other call centres across the province and has new management, said Invest NB CEO Robert MacLeod.

"And if we can be convinced there are true growth opportunities, we would consider doing business with them again," he told the standing committee.

But Liberal MLA Roger Melanson contends there should be no new money until the recent layoffs are reversed.

"They gotta bring back the level of jobs they had in New Brunswick before we started investing in them," Melanson said.

Thing5 expanded its operations in the United States last year, adding 500 jobs at its head office in Massachusetts.

The company, which began operating in New Brunswick as Virtual-Agent Services (VAS) in 1999, previously secured loans from the governments of Bernard Lord and Shawn Graham to set up its call centres.

The Bathurst jobs were expected to contribute almost $1.5 million to the province's gross domestic product annually.