Nfld. & Labrador

Marystown's economy is at a low point. Can this industrial town bounce back?

There are two sides to Marystown these days as the Burin Peninsula town struggles through a crippling economic downturn, while pinning great hopes on a blossoming aquaculture industry.

There's hope aquaculture will lift the Burin Peninsula out of its economic doldrums

Marystown is a community of roughly 5,300 people on Newfoundland's Burin Peninsula, and is currently at a crossroads between a painful economic turmoil and the hope for a brighter future in aquaculture. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

There are two sides to Marystown these days as the Burin Peninsula town struggles through a crippling economic downturn, while pinning great hopes on a blossoming aquaculture industry, and a potential revival of the shipyard that is at the centre of a growing standoff.

On one hand there's a scent of vulnerability in the air. A dark cloud of uncertainty that has driven Marystown to its lowest economic depths.

At the same time, there's growing optimism about the arrival of a new industry, and the possible comeback of another.

I quickly encountered this dichotomy during a recent visit.

Too embarrassed 

In the Tim Hortons parking lot, two pickup trucks. Two gripping tales of misery and uncertainty. Their occupants too embarrassed to speak on the record.

One man is sitting alone and scrolling through his phone when I approach him. Rubbing his stubble-covered chin, he explains how he recently closed his business, and faces an uncertain future.

The retail sector in Marystown has also suffered some losses, including the closure recently of the Jeans Experts store in the Peninsula Mall. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

In another pickup, a man and his adult son — also in the process of dissolving their business — lament the hard times they are enduring.

I can't exaggerate how weak our economy is. People need to go to work. They really need jobs.- Sam Synard

The occupants of the two trucks are strangers to each other, but their stories are painfully similar.

"I can't exaggerate how weak our economy is. People need to go to work. They really need jobs," says longtime Marystown Mayor Sam Synard.

At a crossroads

Marystown is a town of 5,300 — a hub for the entire region. Its residents are accustomed to the boom and bust cycles common for places depending on volatile industries such as shipbuilding, seafood processing and rotational jobs in Alberta's oilpatch.

Right now the town is at a crossroads.

Sam Synard has served as mayor of Marystown since 1999. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The iconic shipyard has been a fixture for a half-century, but has sat idle in recent years, with a fight brewing between the town and province over plans to reactivate the site and create up to 200 jobs.

More on that later.

The fish plant used to employ 1,200 workers, but all that remains is a slab of concrete where the plant once stood, a cold storage building, and a sprawling parking lot that once overflowed with vehicles driven by workers coming and going to their jobs.

And it can be argued that no other region of the province depended so heavily on Alberta for its economic health. But Alberta is facing its own job crunch, and the migration of workers to the oilsands has practically dried up.

I'm talking about young families. Young tradespeople who historically worked in Alberta, are now home with no work, zero work.- Sam Synard

"I'm talking about young families. Young tradespeople who historically worked in Alberta, are now home with no work, zero work," says Synard.

A perfect storm of negativity and bad luck have converged to push Marystown into an economic tailspin.

A new company called Aqua Sol Enterprises has been awarded the contract to install 15 kms of plastic pipes in the new salmon hatchery that is under construction in Marystown. Gerry Sullivan is one of those leading the company. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

The mayor says 100 homes are for sale between Marystown and nearby Fortune, and for the first time in his experience, Synard is hearing stories about foreclosures.

There's also no shortage of unoccupied commercial space, with some retail stores closing their doors in recent weeks.

"The economy has never been weaker," says Synard.

A break in the clouds

But there's a break in the clouds, and you see evidence of it as you enter Marystown. A new company call Aqua Sol Entetprises has set up shop, and the large inventory of plastic pipe stored on the premises is hard to miss.

It's a small quantity of the 15 kilometres of piping that will be required to construct the world's largest salmon hatchery over the next two years, and Aqua Sol has landed the contract to install the piping system.

"It's extremely exciting. Long days. Little sleep," says Gerry Sullivan of Aqua Sol.

The Grieg NL project is massive, involving an investment of $250 million to construct the hatchery and grow-out sites in Placentia Bay, eventually producing 33,000 metric tonnes of farmed salmon annually.

Economic game-changer

The project is being described as an economic game-changer for the hard-hit region, creating at least 600 direct jobs once full production is reached, and hundreds more in economic spinoffs.

In the interim, there are construction jobs. Up to 250 by this spring, says Perry Power of Greig NL.

"This is going to be an anchoring industry for Placentia Bay and indeed for this whole region of Newfoundland," says Power.

And Grieg won't have any trouble filling its labour requirements. In another sign of just how job-hungry this area has become, Power says the company has received 3,300 applications for employment.

Perry Power is a spokesperson for Grieg NL, the company behind a massive aquaculture project in Placentia Bay that will be headquartered in Marystown. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

He calls the response "humbling."

And the arrival of aquaculture has revived hope for the shipyard. 

The owners have agreed to sell the yard to the town for $1 million, and the town has reached a lease agreement with a company called Marbase to transform the yard into a service centre for the aquaculture industry.

Site work is nearing completion on a massive new salmon hatchery for Marystown, with building construction to commence this spring. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

But the provincial government has to sign off on the deal, and despite nine months of talks, it is not yet ready to give its approval.

Synard's frustration is growing.

"We have a willing seller. We have a willing buyer. We have a willing leasee who is going to operate. So now the province has to be willing to get the deal done," he says.

"The process is simply taking too long with the province."

The Marystown shipyard has been a fixture in the Burin Peninsula town for more than a half-century. But it's sat idle in recent years. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Municipal Affairs Minister Graham Letto says he has to make sure the interests of the town and its residents are protected, and won't give his approval until he's confident that is the case.

"Sometimes things don't go as fast as the Town of Marystown would like, but there's been a lot of information that's been required, and until we get all the information that we need, we cannot finalize or continue to advance these discussions," says Letto, who would not give details about the outstanding issues.

Some 200 people are working at the Cow Head fabrication facility in Marystown constructing the accommodation module for the West White Rose oil project.

So that's the story of Marystown right now. The potential for brighter days ahead, but also reeling from an economic earthquake that has shaken the town's very foundations.

"We are on the cusp of better days ahead," says Synard. "We've gone through a rough couple of years."

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

About the Author

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.