Port Alberni Port Authority president and CEO Zoran Knezevic watches the post-COVID-19 action at the dock. With one ship at the terminal, a barge and another ship were waiting their turn a little further down the Alberni Inlet. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

PROGRESS 2020: Port Alberni Port Authority marine cluster continues to grow

Diverse businesses look to Port Alberni's waterfront and deepsea port for expansion

British Columbia’s medical health officer had barely agreed to a plan to re-open the province after COVID-19 closures and the ships were already backed up at Port Alberni Port Authority’s terminals.

“There’s so much on the go,” said David McCormick, PAPA’s director of public relations and business development. “While COVID-19 may have slowed down the pace of meetings, it has actually accelerated action.

“We’re earning a reputation that you can do business here (in Port Alberni.)”

With the extended slowing down of the forestry industry on Vancouver Island, there aren’t too many log export ships scheduled to call in port. Because this industry tends to fluctuate, fewer ships are not a concern, PAPA president and CEO Zoran Knezevic said. He is confident PAPA’s “marine cluster” of businesses is diverse enough to remain business as usual on Port Alberni’s waterfront.

Second freezer trawler arrives

On May 1, Independent Seafoods Canada Corporation announced it will base a second freezer trawler at Port Alberni Terminals. The Sunderoey joins ISCC’s Raw Spirit at the docks—ISCC has based its operations in Port Alberni since 2013. The expansion will mean more than 120 people working on the waterfront and the potential to export 50 to 60 containers of seafood per month to Asia.

READ: Vancouver Island designated as a foreign trade zone

Foreign trade welcome

One project of PAPA’s Knezevic says doesn’t get enough attention is the creation of the foreign trade zone (FTZ) on Vancouver Island.

When the FTZ was announced in September 2018, it was the first time the federal government granted FTZ status to an entire region—not just a municipality. Canada has about a dozen foreign trade zones. An FTZ simplifies importing and exporting within the zone and provides duty relief. Tax can be deferred on materials that are imported, then later exported as value-added items—for example, aluminum imported to make mufflers that are then exported.

Officials with PAPA and others on Vancouver Island spent three years lobbying for the FTZ, he said.

Government recognition of a region as a foreign trade zone essentially acknowledges that region has a network of services and programs, such as customs-bonded warehousing, that can streamline processes for companies that want to import or export products to and from the region and conduct trade with foreign markets.

Building on shipbuilding

The port authority continues to invest in the shipbuilding industry through its support of Canadian Maritime Engineering (which leases one of PAPA’s buildings near Harbour Quay) as well as its proposal for a floating dry dock.

Negotiations are ongoing, “which will complete and enhance our ability to service larger vessels for repair and also to build,” Knezevic said. The long-term vision of the floating dry dock would be to make it large enough to service any of BC Ferries’ fleet.

The floating dry dock committee has requested government funding to purchase and operate the dry dock, with backing from the provincial government. A feasibility study was completed in 2019 and showed the dry dock could draw “hundreds” of primary and secondary shipbuilding and metal fabrication jobs, he said.

The floating dry dock would be located off the old Alberni Plywood lot, where CME has built a facility already.

Spill response base back on

The Western Canada Marine Response Corporation’s spill response base construction is back on, after it was put on hold over a pipeline dispute.

The WCMRC’s mandate under the Canada Shipping Act is to repond to marine oil spills along all 27,000 kilometres of B.C.’s coastline, and to mitigate the impact when a spill occurs. Bases are being built in Port Alberni and Ucluelet.

A small office is being built on Water Street between Harbour Quay and Harbour Quay Marina, while the main base warehouse and office building is under construction on Port Alberni Terminals property. “They expect to complete by first quarter 2021,” McCormick said. The WCMRC has already hired 11 people locally and expect to be a full complement of 22 employees when they open.

Water bottling facility

Thunderbird Spirit Water, a water bottling facility owned and operated by Uchucklesaht First Nation, is under construction on Port Alberni Terminals property. When it opens sometime this summer it will provide up to eight jobs, Knezevic noted.

Thunderbird Spirit Water launched in July 2018. The glass-bottled artesian spring water was showcased at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) national convention in Vancouver that year to great success.

“This is a major milestone going forward for our people,” Uchucklesaht Chief Charlie Cootes said at the time.

Food hub is almost ready

The port authority has partnered with the City of Port Alberni on a regional food processing hub that will open in July in the former Port Fish processing plant next to Tyee Landing. Five seafood processing tenants have already committed to moving in, and a small retail space is also planned for fresh seafood. (see story on page A17 in the Progress 2020 edition).

Even though the food hub—dubbed Sea to Forest Food Hub right now—hasn’t yet opened, PAPA is already looking to future prospects. One of the tenants, Cascadia Seaweed from Victoria, has potential to grow quickly. “The community and we should be ready,” Knezevic said.

Cruise ship growth on pause

Plans to attract more cruise ships to the Alberni Inlet have been put on the backburner due to COVID-19 restrictions, but haven’t been scuttled. Three smaller ships came to port in spring and summer 2019 with success, and Knezevic said PAPA will actively pursue the cruise industry in the near future.

Container ships a possibility

San Group, which recently opened a new sawmill, purchased a specialty sawmill in April and is building a remanufacturing plant in Port Alberni, has a vision to use container ships to move product. Owners Suki and Kamal Sanghera said in early June they want to be shipping value-added lumber by barge by the end of the summer. Their mid-term vision is to work with PAPA to bring container shipping to the Alberni Inlet for the first time.

Container shipping is an exciting prospect for Port Alberni’s marine industry, Knezevic said. If one business such as San Group is able to commit to bringing a ship to port, smaller businesses that may produce enough to fill a container or two but not a full ship could potentially piggyback on that ship.

With everything going on at PAPA, “we are running out of real estate,” Knezevic said.

“If San Group’s numbers materialize, I think we’ll actually be full here. We’d love to see that.”

— With files from Chris Bush, Nanaimo News Bulletin

Alberni Valley News

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