Nearly 60 stakeholders attended a community transition meeting last Wednesday to discuss the closure of Houston Forest Products (HFP).
In attendance were West Fraser managers and employees, local contractors, government officials and employees, education representatives and the Houston council.
“The meeting was pretty positive, better than most people expected,” said Houston Deputy Mayor Shane Brienen.
“It’s easy to be angry or frustrated, and people have a lot of legitimate concerns.
“It’s quite early, it’s only been a week, but people are already looking forward and starting to talk about different options and things we could do,” he said.
The meeting was set up by Houston Council and the Community Transition Team to begin discussing the impact of the HFP closure and crafting a plan of action to deal with coming changes.
Acknowledging the large and devastating impact of the HFP closure, several people made positive statements about the opportunity still available in Houston.
“Since Thursday, we’ve had nine people come into our office looking at starting up or expanding businesses because they see opportunities with the mill being shut down,” said Jerry Botti, General Manager of Nadina Community Futures.
Dennis Hotte, owner of DH Manufacturing, says he sees lots of opportunity in Houston.
“There is huge opportunity in Houston. I see growth for a lot more secondary manufacturing and value-added to our products,” he said.
Klaus Posselt, owner of Tahtsa Timber, agreed.
“I see a lot of dead wood out there, timber sales that aren’t going to be harvested by the majors because it’s either too small, too dry, or too twisted,” he said.
West Fraser Operations Manager John Vander Ende said based on research he’s done, there is a business opportunity with baby squares in China.
“The Chinese today will buy a radial pine log, and the cost of the log delivered to the dock is higher than what I felt we could deliver to China as a baby square cut out of low grade fibre.”
“I believe there’s a business there, but it isn’t with conventional equipment…
“There is low grade fibre available in the north that if you have the right facility and the right product mix, there’s an opportunity,” he said.
Botti from Community Futures said that getting access to fibre at a decent price is a big challenge.
If those issues could be addressed, it would go a long way in creating some employment in this area, he said.
Miller, Chair of RDBNt, offered help and support to Houston and local leaders, who are tasked to look at ways of diversifying the economy.
“We’ve been very active in trying to persuade government to make sure that there is no additional administrative barriers.
“It’s an important step, if we’re going to be able to diversify our economies in the north, to be able to eliminate those administrative barriers, and we’re committed to do that,” he said.
Joel McKay, Communications Director of the Northern Development Initiative Trust (NDIT), said they have programs and services available to help develop the economy.
McKay said they’re focused on economic development, and have funding programs, both grants and loans, and capacity building services which are available.
He says they’ve been in Houston for eight years and have provided funding to the Northwest Community College, to the District of Houston for the geothermal power plant and some for Steelhead Park.
“There’s a variety of ways we can help… whether you’re a business, the District, or a non-profit,” he said.
Jerry Botti, Community Futures, says they can provide business loans for people looking at expanding or starting up a business.
Both McKay, NDIT, and Miller, RDBN, said they have online databases available for northern industrial businesses to post their services on, to take advantage of the developments coming to northern B.C.
“BC-based businesses should get the benefit of projects that are coming to B.C.,” McKay said, adding that contractors can register for free on the database (supplychainconnnector.ca) which will be used by major companies coming in with LNG lines, mines, etc.
Bill Miller, Chair of Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako (RDBN), said the region should make sure incoming companies, such as pipelines and mines, are aware of the social responsibility they have to employees and the community when they close.
TIME TO PULL TOGETHER
Bill Miller, RDBN, said there is a significant difference between the mill explosion in Burns Lake and what’s happening here: In Burns Lake it was immediate, but here there is advance warning before the shut down.
Miller said that on one hand there’s more anxiety build up, but on the other hand it gives time to prepare.
“You have the opportunity to use the lead time to your advantage, use the advantage,” he said, adding that Houston should also leverage their situation to gain advantage from the province, Northern Development, and industry.
“The community needs to work together,” Miller said, adding that Houston should use the Community Transition Team, which was very helpful in Burns Lake.
“Everybody has their piece, and when you put people together… there are all sorts of things that can be created and leveraged on,” said Sarah Fraser, leader of the Community Transition Team.
Brienen concluded the discussion, thanking everyone for coming and inviting them to continue to participate in the process of moving Houston forward, by joining one of the work forces Houston council is putting together.
“Logging is really what we do in Houston… it’s always been our strength, but in a lot of ways it’s been our weakness too that we never looked at anything else around here,” he said.
“We believe that there’s a lot of opportunities in this area and there’s a lot going on, and it looks like there’s a lot coming, whether it be mining or natural gas or connecting to the port somehow.
“That’s what we really want to start focusing on is where do we go next and what are those opportunities,” he said.