A sign along the highway entering Smiths Falls directs people to the Hershey's chocolate factory plant in Smiths Falls, Ont. on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2007, the day the company announced it was closing the plant. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

When Aquablue International, a Canadian water-bottling company, announced in June that it would take over the closed Hershey chocolate factory and create a business that would employ 200 people, it was like a light at the end of a long tunnel for the residents of Smiths Falls.

When Hershey announced it was leaving last year, it was a huge blow to the town of 9,000. The factory employed 400 people and the adjoining Chocolate Shoppe drew hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Smiths Falls, about 75 kilometres south of Ottawa, was known as the chocolate capital of Canada.

So the promise of even 200 jobs brought some joy to the town. But now the doubts have started to creep in.

Aquablue had promised to start with 60 full-time positions in January, according to the company's website, and another 70 in March.

Now the company is pushing that date back by six months, saying it will open next summer.


Aquablue now says it will reopen the former Hershey factory next June. ((CBC))

People are losing hope, especially since the president of Aquablue, Dan Villeneuve, told CBC News last week that he still has no lease-to-own agreement from Hershey for the factory, and he has not yet ordered any equipment for the plant.

Still, he insisted the plant would be open by next summer.

"We're actively looking to secure all our financing, especially on the equipment side, placing an order for the equipment," Villeneuve said.

When asked whether he had all the financing, he said: "No, not completely, not totally, yes."

One local man — who didn't want to give his name — said no one he knows believed it would actually happen.

"They think it's just a phoney setup," he said. "They make a lot of promises, but nothing's coming out."

David Lawrence, president of the Smiths Falls Chamber of Commerce added, "It's disappointing that the process has been delayed, and we have to wonder when this thing will finally get itself resolved."

Contractors owed $360,000

He also pointed out that several local companies have already worked removing old production lines and retrofitting the building. Between them, they are owed more than $360,000 for the work.


Hershey once employed more than 400 people at the plant and drew hundreds of thousands of visitors a year to the adjoining Chocolate Shoppe. ((Jeff Semple/CBC))

Many workers who were laid off when Hershey closed are still looking for jobs, including Marlene Beaupre, who worked for Hershey's for more than 40 years.

After she was laid off, she ran the Action Centre, helping laid-off employees find work.

Beaupre said Wednesday many people came in wondering if they should hold out hope for Aquablue International.

Meanwhile, Beaupre said, the job centre closed two weeks ago because it ran out of federal funding.

Kathy Fox had worked for Hershey's for 18 years, and she didn't wait around for another factory job. She found a position at the local hospital.

Kimberly Chatwood, who lives near the old Hershey building, said her neighbours have mixed feelings about Aquablue.

"Skeptical, because people have said they were coming, and then didn't come, but positive because they were really hoping someone would take over the building," she said.

Chatwood said she's keeping a positive view.

"The town's been through worse," she said. "It's always bounced back. We have so many positive things going on, with the hospital revamping and the new arena being put up.

"Smiths Falls will make it. We always do."