© photo by Joe Gibbons
The Port of Argentia in Placentia Bay
By Ashley Fitzpatrick
Cruising around the former U.S. naval base at Argentia in his SUV, little dog in the seat behind him, Placentia Mayor Bill Hogan hits the gas, taking a sharp left off the aging tarmac.
The truck briefly bounces atop rocks and patch-grass — little dog tossed about in the turbulence — before a sharp right gets it back onto the old runway.
Hogan has swerved past a line of wooden orange barriers.
“Think they’ll keep out the mayor?” he says with a broad grin — speaking to himself as much as anyone.
He is soon flagged down by an on-site worker for Vale, a security man, who asks him if he has signed in at the desk and received a safety briefing.
Make no mistake: a sea of change is underway.
The Town of Placentia, with a population of roughly 3,700, includes Argentia, where the Americans abandoned their base in 1994. A decade later, no one would have been on this side of the peninsula to redirect Hogan.
The Canadian government put more than $100 million into cleaning up what was left behind at the base: scrap, PCBs and other environmental liabilities.
What remains now is a large space, open for industry.
And while, on his recent tour with The Telegram the outgoing mayor expressed some dismay at not being recognized with a wave and a smile, Hogan has no problems with big industry settling in at Argentia.
In fact, it is something he has been advocating for, for years.
Away from the peninsula and closer to what is now called the Southside Industrial Park, Hogan pulls over and points to an expanse of muddy ground and little else.
“All that was housing area,” he says, reflecting on the days of boots on the ground and nuclear weapons in the bunkers.
What was once a reminder of yet another hit to the local economy in the 1990s has now been leveled.
Since Vale developed its 1:100-scale test facility in Argentia, for the more than $4-billion processing plant under construction at nearby Long Harbour, the Argentia area is being looked at with fresh eyes.
Tenants there now include not only the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Atlantic, but also companies like MetalWorld, Capital Crane, Hunts Transport, Irving Equipment and H.J. O’Connell, to name a few.
Argentia boasts an ice-free, deepwater port that is International Safety and Port Security code-compliant, with two active stevedoring companies.
Last year saw the most port traffic since 2001.
The Northside Industrial Park, including the area of the old airstrips, covers 900 acres and is open to heavy industry.
It is being eyed by Husky Energy for a major oil and gas project.
The Southside Industrial Park, meanwhile, has 41 serviced lots on 110 acres, aimed at small to medium-size enterprises.
A first phase of development there has 17 of 24 lots occupied.
There is a separate, 10-acre Technology Park with a single tenant. It all falls under the auspices of the volunteer, not-for-profit Argentia Management Authority.
“There certainly has been some major changes since 2010. We’ve gone through a bit of a reorganization, restructuring,” Argentia Management’s CEO Harvey Brenton said of that organization’s operations.
Along with Chris Newhook, the manager of business development and marketing, Brenton welcomed The Telegram after the mayor’s tour.
The Argentia Management Authority has recently developed a new strategic marketing plan.
The group will put the push on to fill in space on the old base in the coming year — particularly with heavy industry and major project suppliers.
“What we realized is that if you get a small piece of a great big play, it’s probably a whole lot better for us than the many major small plays that we would have here,” Brenton said.
At this point, at least this much is true: the days of the mayor being able to free-wheel through town are gone.