Smiths Falls keeps rolling with the punches

Mayor Shawn Pankow is disappointed with the OPP's decision to close its communications centre, but remains optimistic about the eastern Ontario town's future.

Closure of OPP call centre just the latest economic setback for a town that keeps bouncing back

Smiths Falls, Ont., is no stranger to economic disruption. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Smiths Falls, Ont., is no stranger to economic blows. 

A few grim years saw major job losses after Hershey Canada and tool box manufacturer The Stanley Works left town, and with the closure of the Rideau Regional Centre in 2009.

Then Tweed Marijuana Inc. arrived in 2014, and grew exponentially.

Despite the vagaries of the pot business, and recent losses and layoffs by its parent company, Canopy Growth Corp., it's still the town's largest employer, providing around 1,200 jobs, according to Smiths Falls Mayor Shawn Pankow. 

Still, the announcement last week that the Ontario Provincial Police will close its communications centre in Smiths Falls by next June is an echo of former loss. The decision will affect 100 employees, most of them civilians.

Call-taking and dispatch duties will be moved to the OPP communications centre in Orillia, Ont.

Smiths Falls Mayor Shawn Pankow is confident the eastern Ontario town will rebound from its recent economic setbacks, as it has before. (CBC)

The move has left Pankow disappointed and worried on behalf of the affected families. 

"Families are going to have to potentially uproot their children and change schools. It means one spouse perhaps having to lose their job. It means the … probability of looking for a new job and maybe having to commute to Ottawa if there's nothing suitable locally," he told CBC Radio's All In A Day.

In an email, the OPP's Bill Dickson said the provincial police force is committed to supporting those employees.

"This includes a variety of options, including potential transfers to other OPP locations," he wrote.

The OPP announced last week it's shutting its communications centre in Smiths Falls. About 100 full-time jobs will be affected, mostly civilian positions. (Olivier Plante/CBC)

That's fine for some, but not all, Pankow said.

"There will be some who may be able to transition to retirement, but the vast majority of the roughly 100 employees will be facing a decision this fall: Here is your opportunity to relocate, or here is your severance package if you choose not to," the mayor said.

"To have to uproot your family and move to Orillia or London or North Bay, it's going to be a challenge. Housing prices are rising dramatically here. They're higher in other places."

That's especially true during a pandemic, said Pankow said, who's also concerned about the impact on those left behind.

"From a community perspective, it is lost payroll," he said. "A very modest impact on the overall economy of our town, but it's still impactful."

The OPP's Bill Dickson says the provincial police force will offer 'a variety of options' to employees in Smiths Falls, including transfers to other locations. (Stu Mills/CBC)

The OPP announcement comes on the heels of another money-losing year for Canopy Growth Corp, which is facing stiff spliff competition in Canada. 

"As painful as it may be for the people involved when layoffs do happen … in the end, from a community perspective, it's the long-term sustainability of the facility that means the most to us. They are doing what they have to do," said Pankow.. 

The pandemic has slowed the rollout of new cannabis stores across Ontario. Health Canada has had its hands full with  its COVID-19 response, which has slowed changes to consumption rules that might help Canopy Growth, according to Pankow.

An employee checks on the yield at Canopy Growth's Smiths Falls facility. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Like most communities, the pandemic has put pressure on small businesses, too.

"When you're trying to plan for the future, when you're trying to line up your supply chains ... it's all very challenging," said Pankow, who added federal and provincial support has helped Smiths Falls get through the pandemic.

"We've actually had more businesses open over the last year than close, which is really encouraging," said Pankow. 

"Small business has been the foundation of our community. It got us through those challenges in 2008 into 2010, 2012, and 2014, when we saw a number of facilities closing ... and a real downturn in our economy."

Pankow also credited locals for continuing to support those small businesses by buying takeout and using curbside pickup throughout the pandemic.

With files from CBC Radio's All in a Day