New Brunswick

Bathurst mayor wants province to seize former Smurfit-Stone site

The mayor of Bathurst is fed up with broken promises and the lack of development at the former Smurfit-Stone paper mill site.

No work has been done on the property for more than a year

The Smurfit-Stone property in Bathurst still remains undeveloped more than two years after Raymond Robichaud obtained the property from the province. (Radio Canada)

The mayor of Bathurst is fed up with broken promises and the lack of development on the grounds of the former Smurfit-Stone paper mill.

"Our patience has run out," Mayor Paolo Fongemie said, accusing the developer of tarnishing the city's reputation.

Fongemie said the province should take over the site.

Once the home of Consolidated Bathurst, a longtime employer in the city, the mill hasn't operated as one since 2005, when Smurfit-Stone, the next owner, closed it down.

The property was eventually bought by Bathurst Redevelopment Inc., which became insolvent and transferred the site to developer Raymond Robichaud for $1. 

Two years after that transaction, some old concrete silos still stand, and there is no sign of the development promised by Robichaud.

Meanwhile, the province had waived $1 million in taxes owing on the property —  as long as the developer met certain criteria. He had to follow a development schedule and comply with any environmental orders.

But a promised environmental cleanup has not happened.

There are no luxury condos or strip malls, and there is no campground along the river.

Raymond Robichaud said the taxes the province wants paid on the Smurfit-Stone property are too high. (Radio Canada)

A gas station that was to be built on the only uncontaminated piece of property across the street from the former mill has still not opened, despite signs indicating it's coming. 

Robichaud promised all of these things. The property has been for sale since the fall of 2017 for more than $ 2.3 million. 

And the province now wants the $1 million owing in taxes.   

Developer still has plans

Robichaud told Radio Canada in an interview that his development can still happen, despite his saying the same thing before.

He acknowledged he did not pay taxes on a large part of the land. According to him, the province's assessment is wrong.

"The taxes the province wants to have are too high," he said in French.

Robichaud said he has commissioned a study from an engineering firm into the value of the land.

The former Smurfit-Stone property owned by Raymond Robichaud has been for sale since late 2017. (Radio Canada)

He also said he relies on the materials at the site to pay his debts, but the Environment Department has blocked him from removing $250,000 worth of stainless steel.

"He may have a point," Denis Landry, the justice minister and MLA for Bathurst East-Nepisiguit-Saint-Isidore, said in an interview.

Landry  acknowledged that Robichaud faces challenges from provincial and municipal authorities that prevent him from paying his taxes.

Robichaud has also not paid the fee from 2017 or 2018 to register his numbered companies with the province, but he said this amounted to $60 and the cheque was in the mail. 

'Fed up'

Mayor Fongemie said he has heard enough and he wants something done.

And he wants the province to step in, blaming it for the problem in first place.

"The population is pretty fed up with the situation and we're getting a lot backlash from the population."

Bathurst Mayor Paolo Fongemie said he wants the province to seize the former Smurfit-Stone property. (Radio Canada )

The mayor said residents are blaming council for not making sure the project goes ahead.

"The issue is it's not the municipal government or city council that found the developer, presented the developer to the community."

The mayor said the provincial government brought Robichaud to a city council meeting unannounced.

"So at the end of the day the provincial government has to answer the question of the citizens of the city of Bathurst of what's happening to this project."

Fongemie said the developer accused the city of standing in the way of some of the work he wanted to do, but the city was merely requiring the proper permits.

"That site was secured with a chain-link fence he sold on Kijiji," Fongemie said. "It's not only unsightly, it's unsafe."

Study not done

The mayor said Robichaud also applied for funding through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to do an environmental study of the property.

"There's 12 hot spots on that property and the study was there to determine what kind of hot zones each of them are and how to remediate and what kind of development can happen."

Two of the silos at the former Smurfit-Stone mill were destroyed. (Bridget Yard/CBC)
But while the application was made by Robichaud, it was made in the city's name and the $137,000 granted was not used to complete the study.

Fongemie said this has left a black mark on the city's name with the federation.

The mayor believes this study still has to be done, so everyone knows what is possible with the property.

"There's a lot of unknowns."

The mayor also questions why the province didn't do a rigourous vetting of the property owner before making it possible for him to take it over.

"Hope was sold to the citizens and now the citizens feel we kind of used them as fools."

This latest issue with the Smurfit-Stone property comes years after Bathurst Redevelopment stripped the property of valuable materials and equipment. 

The developer was fined a "symbolic sum" of $150,000 for breaching a ministerial order to clean up the property to standards set by the Department of Environment.

With files from Information Morning Moncton and Radio Canada