What Pictou County can learn from the Bowater paper mill closure
'We started to focus on the attributes we had, the opportunities that exist here'
The former mayor of a Nova Scotia municipality that lost its major employer in 2012 has some words of wisdom for Pictou County, N.S., which is facing the closure of Northern Pulp by the end of the month.
Christopher Clarke was elected mayor of the Region of Queens Municipality just months after the former Bowater paper mill in Brooklyn closed in June 2012.
He said the closure was felt immediately.
"People who had mortgages, in some instances, walked away from their mortgage and left whatever equity they had, they just walked away from the community," Clarke said. "Property values plummeted and have taken quite some time to recover."
Northern Pulp's effluent treatment site at Boat Harbour is legislated to close at the end of the month. Without a place for its effluent the mill can't operate.
The company recently said it plans to continue with the environmental assessment process for a proposed new effluent treatment facility.
Trent Hupman was at Bowater the day its closure was announced. While he previously worked at the mill, he had a large contract doing maintenance work at both Bowater and the nearby Oakhill Sawmill in Lunenburg County.
"It was very devastating for the whole community," Hupman said. "I was actually working on the site that day and it was really surreal … a lot of people were unsure of their futures."
The closure threw 320 people out of work at Bowater and then the Oakhill Sawmill closed, which led to a ripple effect in Nova Scotia's forestry sector.
Clarke said the Region of Queens began working closely with neighbouring municipalities in Lunenburg County, particularly the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg, to try to diversify the local economy.
"We did things like take an inventory of all our assets, worked with groups that could encourage employers to find the right workforce," he said.
He said the provincial and federal governments also worked closely with the municipalities, which provided economic development officers, and established the Port Mersey Commercial Park at the former mill site.
The park was created after the former NDP government led by Darrell Dexter purchased Bowater's assets for a dollar. The park is run by a Crown corporation and is now home to multiple businesses, including cannabis producer Aqualitas, which employs 85 people. Hupman is one of several former mill employees working at the company.
What the province is doing
The Stephen McNeil government announced a transition team to help forestry workers as Northern Pulp shuts down. Other plans include a $50-million transition fund to help those in the forestry sector affected by the shutdown. From that, $7 million will be spent on silviculture work and forest road building, a move that should keep up to 300 people working in the woods as usual for the next year.
Much like the McNeil government, the NDP government set up a transition team, which included representatives from the business community, forestry sector, the provincial government and several municipalities.
But unlike the Dexter government's transition team, there are no municipal representatives on Northern Pulp's transition team.
Clarke said municipalities in the Pictou area are going to have to work together to tackle issues arising from Northern Pulp's closure.
He expressed disappointment at the loss of Northern Pulp, but said it's important for the community to be positive moving forward.
"We started to focus on the attributes we had, the opportunities that exist here and how we could move forward," Clarke said. "If there was a turning point, it was changing our attitude from 'Woe is us' to 'Hey, we're a great place.'"
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