McCain french fry plant in Borden-Carleton still empty

Teresa Wright twright@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on February 27, 2016

Derrick Blacquiere, a former employee at the McCain Foods french fry plant in Borden-Carleton, stands outside the now empty building Friday. He was one of 121 workers laid off when the company announced it was shutting the plant in 2014. The province and McCain Foods continue to search for a new company to take over the plant.

©THE GUARDIAN/Brian McInnis

Almost two years after plant closed, province, McCain Foods still seeking new company to take over

“It was heartbreaking.”

This is how Derrick Blacquiere remembers the day in August 2014 when officials from McCain Foods arrived in P.E.I. to announce it was closing its Borden-Carleton french fry plant.

There had been rumours of cutbacks and efforts made to increase efficiency and production.

As one of the smallest plants in the mighty McCain Foods chain located the farthest from market, many employees knew the writing was on the wall.

“We weren’t surprised. We were disappointed,” Blacquiere recalls.

“I was working up in the front office, so when I saw the head guys come in and a bunch of guys carrying boxes I knew right then it was closing.”

A total of 121 workers lost their jobs when the plant finally closed on Oct. 31, 2014.

The closure had a big impact on the small community of Borden-Carleton, even though the facility is located just outside the town’s boundary line. Farmers who supplied potatoes to the plant were left with an uncertain future. Contractors and small business suppliers to the facility were left in the lurch. Local gas stations and convenience stores took a financial hit from losing the biggest employer in the area.

The McCain plant closure was especially painful for the town of Borden-Carleton in the wake of major job losses associated with the loss of the ferry service when the the Confederation Bridge opened in 1997.

“We are trying to hold to what we had,” says Mayor Dean Sexton.

“We have a lovely school, a lovely arena here. We don’t want to keep on losing people.”

McCain Foods did provide severance pay and funding for training and education upgrades for its P.E.I. workers, and most have found other employment or have retired.

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The company also gave $2 million to the provincial government to help the community deal with the loss of a major employer.

That money has not yet been spent.

A steering committee was struck, made up of representatives from the provincial and federal governments, the town council and the Central Development Corporation to determine a plan for this funding.

With the future of the building unknown, it was decided the money would be held in reserve.

“We didn’t want to start slicing it up and then all of a sudden we have somebody that wants to do something with the building and all of a sudden there’s no money there or it’s gone,” says Shane MacDougall, director of business development with Innovation P.E.I.

The building has remained vacant since McCain ceased operations, but MacDougall says work is ongoing by both the provincial government and McCain Foods to find a new owner or tenant.

A deal on the sale of the building was almost struck last spring.

Cabinet approved transfer of the 69.56 acres of McCain property to Huaou Starch Canada Ltd., a Canadian subsidiary of a potato starch manufacturing company based in Inner Mongolia, China.

The deal fell through, even though deposits had been made on the property.

MacDougall stresses it was a “business decision” of the company to pull out of the deal. He would not say what the reasons were, but indicated the province had been in discussions with Huaou Starch since 2008, and it was the company’s decision to withdraw from the deal.

“In our opinion, some (reasons) are legit and some aren’t. So what they stated were the reasons we don’t necessarily agree with, so I think we could leave that. It was a business decision that they made, and they may come back. Who knows?”

Since then, the province and McCain have been active in trying to attract a new buyer. Seven business development officers with Innovation P.E.I. were tasked with identifying potential companies for the facility.

An expression of interest was sent to 250 companies around the world. McCain also engaged Colliers, a private commercial real estate company, to try to sell the facility.

A number of companies have toured the buildings and some have expressed serious interest, MacDougall said.

“We remain optimistic that we will sell or lease the facility for another use,” said Calla Farn, a spokeswoman for McCain Foods Canada.

The company will consider a long-term lease, a sale or a lease with an option to purchase depending on the party and their interests, Farn added.

She would not disclose the names of any companies who have expressed interest due to confidentiality agreements.

MacDougall stressed this remains a “very active file” with the province trying to find a company that can fill the void left by the McCain plant closure.

Blacquiere says he is hopeful something will happen with the facility but he is not holding his breath.

“It’s not cheap, you’ve got to have deep pockets to run that spot,” he said.

When he runs into former colleagues from the plant, they get to talking about the future of the building. Rumours pop up every now and then about new owners moving in and the plant reopening.

It seems many former workers simply wish McCain had never left.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a company that treated their employees so well as McCain’s did. It was our family. I was there for 23 years, I knew everybody in the plant. So, you know, you lose a little part of you.”

twright@theguardian.pe.ca

Twitter.com/GuardianTeresa