British Columbia

The City of Prince Rupert, B.C., was forced to own an island it didn't want; now it's starting to pay off

Watson Island used to be the most important part of Prince Rupert's economy but, for years, it's been a burden. Now an announcement about propane has prompted renewed hope from city leaders.

Leaders hope a propane export site will transform Watson Island from economic drain to economic driver

The City of Prince Rupert became the 'unwilling owners' of most of Watson Island in 2009, after the Skeena Cellulose pulp mill went bankrupt in 2001. (City of Prince Rupert)

For previous generations of Prince Rupert residents, Watson Island is a symbol of wealth and jobs, says Coun. Blair Mirau. 

"But for people my age," he said. "It's a symbol of economic decline." 

Mirau was 11 years old when the Skeena Cellulose pulp mill, which operated on the island, filed for bankruptcy in 2001. Opened in 1955, the mill spent years as both the North Coast city's main employer and the source of roughly 1/3 of tax revenues, according to an analysis from city manager Robert Long

Prince Rupert Coun. Blair Mirau said, for people of his generation, Watson Island represents economic decline. (City of Prince Rupert)

It was a very different story during Mirau's teenage years, as a series of attempted restarts failed to materialize.

By 2009, the City of Prince Rupert had become what Long's report describes as the "unwilling recipient" of nearly all of Watson Island, transforming it from an economic driver to an economic drain on the city, costing roughly $90,000 a month.

That may change this week with the announcement that the board of the Calgary-based Pembina Pipeline Corporation had approved the creation of a propane export terminal on Watson Island.

"We are thrilled to work with Pembina and finally get Watson Island back in business," Mayor Lee Brain said in a statement.

The Skeena Cellulose pulp mill site on Watson Island has been being decommissioned by the City of Prince Rupert since 2015. (City of Prince Rupert)

Brain said Pembina would be an anchor tenant in what is now being called the Watson Island Intermodal Trade and Logistics Park, a reflection of the vision for the island as a major import/export site, owned by the city and rented to private companies.

While previous councils simply tried to sell Watson Island, Brain explained, "this new council came in and decided it's best to hang on to it and lease different parts of it."

The change is part of Prince Rupert's overall Hays 2.0 strategy being pursued under Brain's leadership, since he was elected in 2014.

The plan aims to position Prince Rupert at the centre of global trade, linking North American and Asian markets. Long's report said Watson Island represented the "holy trinity of trade" due to its access to railway, water and road transportation.

Earlier this year, the city acquired the one remaining lot on Watson Island that it didn't already own (save for the CN Rail line), and the deconstruction of the old mill site is well underway.

Brain said his hope is that Watson Island once again becomes a symbol of growth rather than decline for new generations of Rupertites.

"What was once the story of economic downfall and hardship is now the story of prosperity and renewal," he said.

Pembina said the export terminal is expected to create between 20 and 30 full-time jobs and be operational by 2020, assuming the company receives the necessary environmental approvals.

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About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.

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