Stephenville: Part I
Down but not out
Last Updated April 4, 2007
by Amanda Ryder, CBC News
Stephenville by the numbers
- Location: In the Bay St. George area of Newfoundland's west coast
- Population (2006): 6,588
- Average earnings (2001): $24,395
- Median family income (2001): $24,395
- Industry: In 2001, 21 per cent of the experienced labour force worked in wholesale and retail trade, while 12 per cent worked in the manufacturing and construction industry.
Source: Most recent information from Statistics Canada
Stephenville, a town of about 6,600 on Newfoundland's west coast, knows adversity first-hand. It has weathered triumphs and failures throughout its history — and even lost its primary industry twice.
The first came in 1966, when the U.S. Air Force closed the international airbase that had been putting Stephenville on the map for a quarter-century and, at its peak, directly employed 5,000 people.
The town was able to recover, but bad news came again on Sept. 22, 2005, when the company that had taken over as the town's biggest employer, Abitibi-Consolidated Inc., said the local pulp and paper mill would be idled.
That dampened the residents' spirits enough — but less than a week later, they found themselves wading through waist-high water when 140 millimetres of rain caused the two rivers that run through the community to breach their banks. The flood seeped into 70 homes (reaching the window ledges of several), forced more than 200 people to flee for other lodgings and caused millions in damages.
As the town struggled to clean up and rebuild, the final word on the Abitibi mill came on Dec. 14, 2005. Eleven days before Christmas, 260 workers lost their jobs. The pulp and paper operation that had fed the community for more than 30 years was finished.
The town is still trying to figure out how to survive the shutdown.
'A major blow'
Some people left town in the weeks after the closure, while others stayed behind in the hope of finding new jobs. A year later, those jobs are starting to trickle in, but the economic recovery has been slow.
Stephenville was home to the largest airbase outside the United States during the Second World War. (Photo courtesy town of Stephenville)
The town is fighting to stay alive and many families have become divided, split between jobs in western provinces and their homes in the East.
"The closure of the mill was a major blow," said Stephenville's mayor, Tom O'Brien. "Twenty-seven million dollars in payroll to the local economy is a devastating loss."
Before the mill closed, its workers earned an average of almost $80,000 per year and each of their jobs created an estimated three more in spinoff industries.
John MacPherson is the executive director of the Long Range Regional Economic Development Board that looks after 52 communities in the area, Stephenville being one of the largest.
He estimates that with the closure, $70 million in economic activity and wages have been removed from the community.
The mayor said there was no way a town could prepare for an event with so much direct economic impact, but the co-operation of several groups has helped Stephenville get through the initial shock.
Over the course of the past year, the town has set up several organizations to help with the fallout. The province established a ministerial task force and a local development force to look at what the community has to offer and identify new opportunities. The federal government helped out with a retraining and employment program for the laid-off workers.
No downturn yet for most businesses
And in a bit of luck, the business community hasn't been hit as hard as expected.
Wayne Wheeler, the president of the Bay St. George Chamber of Commerce, said there haven't been many business closures since the mill shut down.
The chamber conducted a survey at the end of 2006 to gauge how local businesses were doing in the aftermath, and found that most hadn't yet seen a downturn.
Wheeler attributed it to the storms and flood that raged through the area in September 2005. People were forced to repair, renovate and in some cases rebuild entire homes, as well as replacing the contents.
"Even though the flood was a disaster, we had a lot of economic benefits from it," he said. "With the rebuilding effort, the purchase of new goods put money back into the economy."
Waiting for the Queen to visit in June 1959. (Photo courtesy town of Stephenville)
Even so, some businesses have suffered.
Shortly after the Abitibi shutdown, the 12 or so employees at the local operation of Sonoco Ltd., which supplied paper cores for the mill, were let go. The four workers at Siemens Canada who supported operations at the mill also lost their jobs.
MacPherson, of the economic development board, said the full economic consequences of the closure are probably a few years off for most local businesses.
"If we've seen the full impact of the mill closure, then we are very fortunate. But it usually takes three or four years to see the full impact," MacPherson said.
Split between Alberta's oilpatch and home
Meanwhile, the people most affected by the closure have been the men and women who spent much of their working careers at the Abitibi mill.
They were forced to cope with the loss of their livelihood in a community where the unemployment rate is nearing 20 per cent.
Bob Whalen, who was a mechanical oiler at the Stephenville mill, had seniority so he was one of the last to leave, finishing on May 2006.
Whalen had lived in the town for 35 years, but couldn't find work locally and so he found work at a construction site in the Alberta oilsands boom town of Fort McMurray.
His wife, Cathy, is a nurse at the hospital and has stayed behind in Stephenville with two of their four children. The couple has two daughters and grandchildren who had already moved west, and this was one of the reasons Bob was willing to move for work.
"He had a place to go and he was able to take a vehicle," Cathy said. "It's different for Bob than others. Some are there with no vehicle, and it's harder."
Over the summer, Whalen worked the "six and two" in Fort McMurray — a program that allows workers to work six straight weeks and then take two off. He spent his time off back in Stephenville, while his wife took two weeks of leave from the hospital to spend time with her husband.
She said she plans to stay in Newfoundland until she retires — and then the two of them will decide what to do and where they want to live.
"I still have my full-time job here and we are both in our early fifties. Hopefully retirement is in the near future, but who knows? Life is unpredictable."
- Part I
- A double-barrelled blow
- Part II
- The search for jobs — and a new town future
- Part III
- New mill owner, new hope?
- Part I
- Racing against the pine beetle time bomb
- Part II
- Looking ahead: The people of Quesnel
- Quick history
- From gold rush to forestry centre