British Columbia·MILL TOWNS

Gold River still reinventing its economy 20 years after mill closed

Logging is the main employer in Vancouver Island's Gold River following the closure of the pulp and paper mill in 1998, but work continues to build a stronger tourism sector.

Hopes pegged on new industry, tourism and home-based businesses

Mayor Brad Unger is hopeful a new business at the old mill site located near the geographic centre of Vancouver Island will provide more employment. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Gold River's mill days are firmly in the rearview mirror, but decaying buildings from that era down the road from the village are a constant reminder that pulp and paper built this town.

The mill is the reason Gold River exists in the middle of Vancouver Island, with road access to Nootka Sound on the island's west coast. The Tahsis Company that built it back in the 1960s built the houses, too.

"It was just an instant town," says Mayor Brad Unger.

The mill ran as a pulp operation and later produced paper as well. But in 1998 it shut down, eliminating 360 good paying jobs the village relied on.

It was the start of a new, and much more challenging, era for Gold River.

"It didn't happen immediately, but it wasn't long after the young people were leaving town ... house prices plummeted," Unger says.

The town of Gold River was built by the mill and is now largely sustained by the logging industry. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

During the boom days, Unger says the population topped 2,000 people. Now there are about 1,300.

In the two decades that have passed since the closure, the old mill site has changed hands several times.

Hopes for a new large-scale industrial business, including one that had a plan to burn Vancouver's garbage, didn't take.

But new owners purchased the site last year and have started to dismantle the remaining mill buildings.

"I look at this as a positive because if they are spending money to tear things down, they must be ready to have something in the future," Unger says.

The deep sea port next to the old mill site on Nootka Sound is the draw for the new ownership, West Coast Marine Terminals. It is tearing down the buildings to make room for a new marine storage and staging business.

One of the first projects could be storage of construction materials for the new LNG Canada plant further up the B.C. coast in Kitimat, says operations director  Kent O'Neill.

The old mill in Gold River is located at a deep sea port on Nootka Sound. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

"I've been working in this area for the last 17 years and driving by the old mill, it's kind of reminder of what was," he says. "It's kind of nice to have it taken down and moved out of the way and let the new stuff come in."

The new business will provide employment, O'Neill says, but not on the scale of the old mill.

Logging in the forests around Gold River is the main employer, along with aquaculture. The town council has also worked to secure wood supply for a small sawmill and a cedar shake mill that provide employment.

Coming technological upgrades such as high-speed internet — and maybe one day cellphone service — are also expected to help attract more home-based businesses.

But economic hopes are also pegged on tourism.

Behind the counter at the Clayworks Cafe and Gallery, Anita Lawrence and her husband Neil are part of that new economy. Their cafe is a hot spot for locals and tourists alike.

"I see an increase in visitor traffic of course every summer," Anita Lawrence says. "People are looking for outdoor adventure, they're looking for a beautiful landscape, they're wanting to do some camping and fishing."

Phillip Parkes, a school district principal, runs a highly regarded outdoor education program that has been drawing new families to Gold River. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

But making the shift from a resource-based economy is a challenge, she says.

"There's always these sort of questions about developing a tourism strategy and what comes first," she says. "There's always this fine play between who's going to come and set up shop, and then who's going to come and visit if there's no shop set up."

Just up the street at Gold River's high school, district principal Philip Parkes is thinking outside the classroom.

A decade ago he started an outdoor education program. It has helped attract new families to town and now it even draws International students from countries around the world.

The program injects money in Gold River's economy through homestays for the international students and hiring outdoor contractors.

"I think the transition from a resource-based community to a more modern community is an ongoing conversation and how we achieve that remains up for debate," he says.

Western Forest Products says approximately 3,000 workers walked off the job Monday, July 1, 2019. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

But in Parkes mind, the natural beauty outside everyone's front door in Gold River is a key part of the conversation.

"It's just figuring out how we can attract people here and get them into the wilderness and and show them how beautiful this area is."

While work continues on the tourism front, construction activity at the old mill site is also encouraging, Mayor Unger says.

But no matter how that new business takes shape, he says Gold River doesn't plan to ever go back to being a one-company town.

"Every community now, especially your small resource ones, don't want that one big employer. Now we like to have three or four, employing 30 people, 40 people."

And he's confident Gold River has a lot to offer.

"One of our slogans is: It's all here, why aren't you?"

Listen to the complete radio documentary below:

Mill Towns is a series by CBC Victoria exploring how forestry-dependent communities on Vancouver Island view changes planned by the provincial government to revitalize forestry on the B.C. Coast.

About the Author

Megan Thomas


Megan Thomas is a reporter for CBC in Victoria, B.C. She covers stories from around Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. Follow her on Twitter @meganTcbc.


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