Hanna fearful of 'ghost town' future as Alberta quits coal

The town of Hanna has started to feel the impact of Alberta’s collapsing coal industry. On main street, now shuttered businesses are flanked by boarded-up buildings and empty lots.

'I think if people have an opportunity to move, I think they will,' mayor says

Business owners in downtown Hanna are growing concerned about the pending closure of the local coal mine. (Google Images)

The town of Hanna has started to feel the impact of Alberta's collapsing coal industry.

On main street, now shuttered businesses are flanked by boarded-up buildings and empty lots. 

"We used to get crews coming in town and spending their money," said Lucy Bradfield, owner of Hanna's Homestyle Pies. "We don't have that anymore.

"Nothing is happening now. It is dead. Four buildings have been demolished this year already. It looks like an old hag with missing teeth.

"There is a building, and then an empty spot, and then a building and then an empty spot."

'It's a sad story'

As the provincial government moves ahead with plans to phase out coal-fired power plants, the community faces an uncertain future.

The local coal mine employs 60 to 80 people, and the nearby coal-fired power station employs another 110. According to the 2011 census, the town had a population of 2,673.

"Everybody is going to leave town," said Bradfield, who noted her profits are down $20,000 from last year. "It's a huge ripple effect. Things are being made hard for the coal industry, and we're looking at this maybe becoming a ghost town. It's a sad story."

The province's new climate-change plan would have Alberta eliminate coal-fired power plants by 2030. The date looms large over the town, said Mayor Chris Warwick.

"Most people are concerned. What is the future? How long will the mine stay open?

"I know they say 2030, but they are a company and, like any other company, they have to be profitable.

"It hasn't been a mass exodus yet. I think if people have an opportunity to move, I think they will."

'A snowball effect'

As workers leave town in search of secure employment, even Warwick's own business, a Home Hardware run by his family for three generations, has begun to feel the pinch.

"You lose ten per cent of your population, you lose ten per cent of your customers," said Warwick.

"That means I will probably have to consider letting some of my staff go. It's just a snowball effect and not a very good one."
Mayor Chris Warwick said Hanna residents are concerned about the town's coal-free future. (Mike Symington/CBC)

The NDP government announced Friday a three-member panel to meet with community, labour and industry leaders in regions affected by the policy.

The panel is to begin discussions this fall with workers most affected by the closure of coal-fired generation plants, including those in and around Parkland and Leduc counties, and in Forestburg and Hanna.

The panel members are: labour lawyer Ritu Khullar; Ken Devaney, executive director of the Canadian Steel Trade and Employment Congress; and Kerry Jothen, CEO of Human Capital Strategies. The group's goal is to gather information about challenges and opportunities, to share resources and generate ideas for new employment opportunities.

'Major impact'

But Warwick is skeptical. He's concerned the panel is too "industry heavy" to help communities survive the transition.

Without new employers moving in to replace lost jobs, the situation will remain grim.  

He said having the local plant converted to burn natural gas would be the "best-case scenario" in a bad situation.

"Hanna has been around and was here long before the generating station was here," said Warwick. "Will the town absolutely fizzle out and die ? Absolutely not, I guarantee you that. But it will certainly have major impact on us."