SOURIS — Thelma MacDonald doesn’t mind when the Island media descends on her hometown in eastern P.E.I.
“As long as you’re here for good news,’’ said the veteran town councillor Wednesday morning as throngs of people piled into a vacant fish plant.
It was good news alright, at least in the opinion of folks from Souris and the current government, who watched the same plant shut down four years ago and leave 300 people without work. But this time out, it’s a different story; or so MacDonald and the townsfolk hope.
This time the plant, sitting on one of the best waterfront properties in the province, is under local ownership. No big corporations from away, no banks from Iceland, no decisions made elsewhere. This time the plant will re-open with three new local tenants who have fairly deep roots planted in the area.
“It’s not going to replace all the jobs originally lost,’’ says Gerry Gallant of the Souris Harbour Authority. “But everyone setting up shop in here today is prepared to stick around and help make things grow.”
Gallant has been quietly working on the plan with authority chairman Denis Thibodeau for the past three years. And the plan is to re-purpose the former Ocean Choice fish plant — built in 2004 and shut down in 2011 — and welcome three new tenants to the fold.
The province is providing a $2 million loan for the authority to take over ownership, lease out space, and head hunt other potential operators in the bioscience and aquaculture fields.
“I think we would like to see these facilities develop as a centre for operations and processing,’’ said Denis Thibodeau, chair of the authority. “It was the foresight of the board that got us here.”
The 30,000 square foot fish plant was too large for just one operator, so joining the multi-tenant team are Eastern Cold Storage, which will double its current freezer capacity (now full), North Lake Fisheries, which will open a second processing plant operation for a variety of products, and the Centre for Aquaculture Technologies Canada (CATC), that will focus on research and development for clients.
“When the fish plant closed four years ago it was the first time in history that lobster had not been processed in Souris,’’ said Gallant. “I’m glad that record is over.”
The announcement here was made by Innovation Minister Allen Roach and Fisheries, Aquaculture and Rural Development Minister Ron MacKinley who added $150,000 in funds for cold storage expansion.
“I’m very proud to be here today for this,’’ said Roach. “I’m a local boy and have longed to help make something happen in this plant.”
The government has been criticized by the opposition for settling out of court with OCI and writing off an $8 million loan to the company to end a lawsuit.
“Community based ownership will lead to a better future for the area,’’ offered local MLA Colin Lavie, who blasted the Liberals for wasting millions of tax dollars while people lost jobs and had to head west for work when the plant closed.
Roach says the government gained $1.5 million in the settlement as well as the deed to a plant that has been vacant for four years. MacKinley said the plant was built by the former Conservative government ten years ago and turned over to the operators at the time without any financial security for the province.
“I’ve heard the complaints, but this facility is an economic generator and if we just let it sit here empty…..the building will get worse,” said Roach. “Then it would require even more maintenance and money to get things going again down the road.”
The three new tenants will create about 100 jobs this spring and there is still another 20,000 square feet open for new prospect opportunities.
“We are a private company that offers research into aquaculture development and we will have fish in tanks to study for trials,’’ said Dr. Debbie Plouffe, VP of research for the Centre of Aquaculture Technologies Canada (CATC). “We hope to develop new products and offer services not currently available and there is no plan to work with transgenic fish.”
Plouffe said her company did farm salmon research for Fortune based Aqua Bounty but is not connected to the operation. CATC is not a subsidiary of Aqua Bounty, but a sub of the Centre of Aquaculture Technologies based out of San Diego.
The plant will be known as Souris Harbour Industries and the authority is anxious to develop the port. The freezer units are already filled with blueberries, seafood products and bait.