Since the Wisconsin-based company LaPointe Partners abruptly shut down the pulp mill that was the village’s major employer last October, out-of-work parents are finding no choice but to leave.
“Ashley mentioned that she wanted to move away because all of her friends are moving,” said Ashley’s mom, Joanie Diebel. “Her friends are the centre of her world; you know how kids are.”
But even as Port Alice’s population dips to about 500 from 1,200 a year ago, the remaining villagers find reason for optimism: a deal on the horizon to buy and restart the mill may lure people back.
Nearly the entire town showed up for a meeting on Wednesday night in the community centre to hear the details of a Savannah local hookup proposed offer by Richard Bassett of Charlestown Investments to invest $80-million to modernize the mill, which has been the economic engine of the village since it started operating in 1918.
While significant conditions must be met before the deal is closed, the people of Port Alice, who have gambled their livelihoods on keeping the mill, say it may be just in time.
8-million in taxes the mill paid — which made up 85 per cent of the town’s total revenue — there isn’t the money to run either of the two.
Eight-year-old Ashley McKay’s Grade 3 class in Port Alice’s elementary school on the remote Neroutsos Inlet of Vancouver Island had 13 students last year
The village spent money on infrastructure knowing that without the tax money from the mill, it might not be able to afford it, said Ashley’s father, Andrew McKay, a town councillor.
He said the town laid off more than half of its employees in an attempt to balance its budget, but “we couldn’t cut fast enough, and there was severance and all those other things.”
Port Alice will have to change the way it does business if the mill is to restart, Mr
An $819,000 package from the provincial government announced on Wednesday has paid for the past year’s financial mess, including school taxes that were used to pay for the town’s services rather than forwarded to the province.
If the town keeps losing people, its doctors will leave as well, said Mr. McKay, who had been a millwright since 1988.
“They have a contract that expires in December, and they’re not generating any revenue here,” Mr. McKay said. “Unless something changes, they won’t be able to stay.
“The biggest stress is trying to manage with no money,” said Don Rethmeier, who made wood chips at the mill to support his wife and four children.
He says that if you add up holiday pay, banked time, and severance that was left unpaid by LaPointe Partners when it pulled out of the mill and declared bankruptcy last year, he has lost more than half a year’s wages.
He’s been asked to work elsewhere, but does not want to leave Port Alice. It would be irresponsible to abandon a new job to return if the mill started up again. “I’d be no better than LaPointe.”
Mr. Bassett, the investor, said although details still needed to be worked out, he had reached an agreement in principle with Economic Development Minister Colin Hansen on one of two hang-ups to the purchase: insulating the company from more than $80-million in environmental cleanup costs.
He is also in negotiations with the town to cap the property taxes that the mill pays to the town.
“The mill has been for sale for years now and many people have said this is too hard a sell,” he said. “We’re taking a risk, and there should be some room for negotiation.”