Grand Falls-Windsor -
The minister in charge of a group formed to deal with the fallout of the AbitibiBowater paper mill in Grand Falls-Windsor last year says reports about the economy there are encouraging.
Shawn Skinner, chairman of the ministerial task force and minister of innovation, trade and rural development, was in the central Newfoundland community Thursday along with several members of the committee.
Together with Deputy Premier Kathy Dunderdale and ministers Susan Sullivan, Darin King, Joan Burke and Charlene Johnson, Skinner met with various groups from the area.
They included the Grand Falls-Windsor town council, the Exploits Valley Joint Councils, the Community Development Committee formed to advise the ministerial group and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union locals.
"The purpose of being out here was to follow up on some of the work that has been done over the past 16 to 18 months," Skinner said.
The meetings were a review of what has been done over the last few months in order to make sure the expectations of those groups were met, said the minister.
"More importantly, I think, the reason we came out here was (to determine) where we are going next," he said. "All of the groups that we met with recognized that we responded to a very severe crisis in central Newfoundland and Labrador and they believe we responded well as a government, working with them as local stakeholders. We were sensitive to their needs and sensitive to their input. They recognize now that we need to look forward in terms of economic viability and sustainability."
The next phase will be more focused on long-term economic viability, Skinner said.
He said that in addition to more than $100 million invested in the central region over the past year, the government is prepared to invest further in the region. It will not be one major employer moving into the area that will help in the recovery of the local economy, he said, but rather many smaller businesses.
"It is our expectation that we will see the central region come back to see a very strong economy, a sustainable economy and a vibrant economy, but instead of one resource or company (coming here) it will be done with a multitude of companies," he said.
When asked about the possibility of an investor using the old paper mill, especially in the wake of last month's situation around German company Lott Paper, he said it was just one of a number of companies that has expressed interest in the facility.
Skinner added that the persistent rumours of a wood pellet manufacturer expressing interest in establishing operations in the area are true. There has been a proposal, but no business plan, presented to the government. He acknowledged jobs in a wood pellet operation would pale in comparison to the wood fibre required to supply such an operation and questioned if it would be the best use of the resource.
"It is not something we are confident that will happen just yet," he said. "If there is something we could marry that with, some secondary processing or saw logs, then that would build an industry. We are trying to build an industry here."
He said if there is a company interested in using local wood fibre, they would need to use it in central Newfoundland.
"We have always maintained that we would adhere to the principle of adjacency where there was a business case to be done," Skinner said. "Am I going to say we are not going to use the resource for anything else? Absolutely not. But if there is a business out there, a corporation out there or a person out there with an idea that can use that mill, needs to use the fibre, needs to use the hydro asset, needs to use the human resource and skill development we have out here, we are willing to tie that together as a package if it benefits the province of Newfoundland and Labrador and the people of the region."
Skinner said the feeling from most of the groups he spoke to Thursday was positive.
"I have taken copious notes today and have written down things like 'business is good,' 'housing starts are up,' 'people are being hired,'" he said. "That is being tempered with people who haven't made the transition well. There are still people who were let go from the mill who haven't found a new career or new employment. There are two sides to this. But generally speaking there is a sense of optimism, a sense that we are going to come out of this, a sense that some of the investments that have been made ... has helped contribute to people maintaining a confidence in the community. That, to me, was the biggest thing psychologically, was the biggest thing we could do - keep people's confidence up."
He said residents see a light at the end of the tunnel, but realize it will take some time to fully recover.
"They see the light as being three- to five-years down the road, they don't see it as six months," he said. "They understand there is a process here."