Port Alice ponders mill-less future

About 60 people packed the Port Alice community centre boardroom last month to help formulate an economic development plan to jumpstart the stricken community.

The number may not seem like a lot on the surface, but it was standing room only for the town and marked more than 10 per cent of the dwindling town’s population.

“I’m in shock by how many people are actually here,” said Mayor Jan Allen to the crowd, which eventually voted to name the economic development plan “Port of Potential.”

The Sept. 29 open house was chaired by William Trousdale and Colleen Hamilton from EcoPlan International, which has been hired to develop an economic development strategy in the wake of the Neucel Specialty Cellulose Pulp Mill’s indefinite halting of operations.

“I don’t know if any of you’ve heard, but the mill closed,” said Trousdale, to laughter from the room.

Originally announced as a six-month shutdown in February, the now open-ended Neucel curtailment has been a big blow to Port Alice.

The mill provides 75 per cent of the village’s tax base and more than 50 per cent of the direct local jobs.

The population of Port Alice has been shrinking since 1981. During the last census in 2011 there were 805 full-time residents in Port Alice. Estimates now place the population at about 500, said Hamilton.

The average age of people living in the community is also creeping up.

Port Alice has lost about 70 per cent of its students, going from 250 in 1995; to 124 students in 2004; to 35 for this school year.

Of the 591 residences in Port Alice, 217 are not the owners’ primary residence. Ten single-family homes are currently for sale with an average price of $180,000. Average sale prices have declined steadily since about 2006.

Trousdale called the downtime an opportunity.

“This isn’t the only community that’s been through a major closure,” he said.

EcoPlan has been in Port Alice for about six weeks.

Through conversations with residents they have learned that people would like to see a sports bar, restaurants, a call centre, a kayak rental and guiding company, more B&Bs, IT services, a coffee shop, hiking tours, a taxi service, auto repair shops, tailors, property management companies, music and dance classes, and health-related businesses such as registered massage therapists and acupuncturists.

There is also a lot of interest in a medicinal marijuana facility.

Those who attended the open house were asked to consider two futures for Port Alice — one where the mill reopens and one where it doesn’t.

“This is about what the village should do regardless” of what happens at the mill, said Trousdale.

Even if the pulp mill does reopen, the community appears to still be facing change. The 100-year-old mill needs equipment upgrades.

If those happen, there will be 320 to 360 employees — down from about 400. It is likely 50 to 75 per cent of the mill workers would live outside of Port Alice, and there would continue to be market-driven curtailments.

If the mill is shuttered, the blow to the tax base would mean severe cuts to services. It is unclear if the RCMP, health centre and post office would survive.

Trousdale and Hamilton had the group participate in the discussion by using a device which recorded their responses to questions.

The majority of people in the room were between the ages of 35-64.

Fifty-two per cent said the were very committed to Port Alice and were staying no matter what.

Tourism promotion was controversial issue during initial conversations, said Trousdale, who was shocked when 69 per cent of the audience responded that they would like to see their community “as open as Telegraph Cove to tourists.”

People seemed also in favour of trying to attract retirees (51 per cent) and being open to second home owners (58 per cent).

Trousdale told the Gazette things are going “great. Fantastic. We’ve talked to over 40 people in the community. We’ve done surveys and this is just the initial step.”

A draft plan is expected to be ready in about a month and a half.

EcoPlan, based in Vancouver, is a multi-disciplinary firm of planners, urban designers, decision analysts and economic development specialists.

It has worked with governments, First Nations, the private sector, and non-profit organizations to develop and implement smart solutions to the planning challenges they face. They have been in business for 15 years.

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