Fort St. James, which depended heavily on forestry, is left in a tough situation after the closure of the Conifex sawmill and its sale to Hampton Lumber, which left 226 people unemployed. (Black Press Media file photo)

Fort St. James in financial crisis, mayor says

The community of Fort St. James is in a financial crisis, its mayor told a meeting on July 18.

The announcement by mayor Bev Playfair follows the sale of the Conifex sawmill to Hampton Lumber, a move that Playfair said will leave hundreds of people unemployed.

“These people want to stay in our community,” Playfair explained to a meeting of the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako in Burns Lake on July 18.

“Some of these employees have been through a shutdown for the third time. It all started with Canfor, then Pope and Talbot went bankrupt and now Conifex.”

The Conifex sawmill will be purchased by Hampton Lumber for an estimated $39 million, as announced on June 24. The Oregon-based company, which has operations in Burns Lake, plans to dismantle the Conifex mill and build a new one.

READ MORE: Hampton to buy Conifex sawmill in Fort St. James

In February, Conifex announced it was closing its Fort St. James mill temporarily, affecting 150 workers, amid challenging timber market conditions.

LOOK BACK: Conifex curtailing sawmill operation for three weeks

Conifex said the mill is still technically in a production curtailment and 49 hourly employees were, as of July 15 “on site working on preparing the site for sale. Our 37 salary employees are working,” spokesperson Sandy Ferguson told Lakes District News July 19.

The community is working on a plan with all the relevant stakeholders, including industry and government to retain people and prepare them for possible economic difficulties to come.

“We decided we’ll have a job fair and that’ll be on July 31st and it will have everyone there from the mine to Northern Health to Coastal GasLink, all the contractors. Anyone that would have jobs available to these employees. Along with the services – from Service Canada to the food bank. Everything these people need at this time to get the help that they need. We’re hoping to draw attention from the government. We know it’s not easy. But it takes time. We don’t feel we have time in Fort St. James,” Playfair said.

Hampton CEO Steve Zika told Lakes District News that timelines for the construction of the replacement mill in Fort St. James and other details were not yet known.

“We are not commenting on details related to future operations at this time,” he said.

Zika acknowledged the tough effects of temporary and permanent closures on communities, and addressed the possibility that unemployed workers in Fort St. James might be able to work in Hampton’s Babine or Decker Lake operations in Burns Lake.

“I am not sure if we have many openings in our Burns Lake sawmills currently but if we do, we would make the idled workers aware of them.”

Playfair is focusing on the present because even though she said she would love for Hampton to set up in Fort St. James, it will be at least another two years until the company builds the new facility, which “would never employ all of these workers. Maybe 150 of them.”

“The best thing we can do is help all those unemployed people. Centerra [mine] does have jobs, that’s only 95 kilometres down the road. And they have 14 skilled jobs, which is electricians, millwrights and what not. We’ve talked to Nak’azdli [First Nation]. They have an agreement with the LNG project and it could be as early as August starting to build the camp. There’s another positive thing for people to stay at home,” she explained.

“This has an immediate impact on the whole community. The very next day, the local businesses – people stop spending money.”

Part of the Hampton deal with Conifex includes taking over its forest license, and Hampton submitted its application to the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) on July 12, Zika said.

Other aspects of the deal are subject to regulatory approvals of FLNRORD.

Blair McBride
Multimedia reporter
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