Bust to boom: In Smiths Falls, things are suddenly looking up

The mayor of Smiths Falls, Ont., says the level of economic growth and optimism in his town is something he never expected, especially after the town lost hundreds of jobs when the Hershey chocolate factory closed a decade ago.

'What we see today ... is beyond what we would have even envisioned,' mayor says

Shawn Pankow, the mayor of Smiths Falls, Ont., says the growth his town is experiencing is a pleasant surprise. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Smiths Falls, Ont., Mayor Shawn Pankow says the level of economic growth and optimism his town is experiencing is something he never expected, especially after the town lost hundreds of jobs when the Hershey chocolate factory closed a decade ago.

The small eastern Ontario town is now home to one of the world's largest medical cannabis companies, Canopy Growth, which will soon be supplying much of the province's recreational cannabis when legalization hits on Oct. 17. 

"I think in the back of our mind in some point in time we sort of hope that cannabis would be legalised recreationally... [but] what we see today I think is beyond what we would have even envisioned," Pankow told CBC Radio's Ontario Morning Monday.

In 2013, Canopy Growth moved into one third of the former Hershey plant and promised to create 100 to 150 new jobs in the medical marijuana sector. The town quietly hoped that the company would someday take over more than just a part of the building. 

Today, Canopy Growth has bought the entire plant and a few surrounding buildings. The company is promising more than 700 new jobs for the town as it prepares for legalization. 

A grim few years 

The chocolate factory not only provided manufacturing jobs, but also boosted the town's tourism industry, with as many as 400,000 people visiting the confectionery each year. 

When the factory closed in 2008, many people lost their jobs. They relied on their savings or took on multiple part-time jobs in order to make ends meet, Pankow said. 

"A lot of homes [were] for sale, not a lot of interest in investment... overall it was a fairly, I guess, discouraged environment," the mayor said. "There was certainly a lot of concern... not knowing what the future brought."

​The town was on the lookout for new tenants for the vacant plant, and finally Canopy Growth moved in five years later. 

"Every time I've been in the building, it was changing rapidly," Pankow said. "They are working on filling out the rest of the building, they have added a new visitor centre at the front.... By the time they are done, we don't know where it's going to end."

Things looking up, challenger agrees

Pankow is seeking re-election as mayor this October. Running against him is current town Coun. Joe Gallipeau.

Gallipeau agreed with Pankow that times have changed in the town.

"There was a lot of job losses in the last eight to 10 years, and so Smiths Falls was pretty quiet. But with [Canopy Growth] starting ... they've made a big boost to the town economically," he said. "And the housing market in Smiths Falls has improved.

"I think the mood in Smiths Falls is up, that we're over that tough sled we went through for a few years, and I think everybody's confident that we're going to move ahead."

CBC Radio's Ontario Morning