What opportunities are knocking in Corner Brook?

Role as service centre, college among potential bright spots; new investment needed

Steve Bartlett sbartlett@thetelegram.com
Published on May 28, 2012
Corner Brook’s city hall. — Photo by Geraldine Brophy/The Western Star

Second in a two-part series

Read Part 1 here

The future of their paper mill might be flickering a little, but a lot of people in Corner Brook still believe their future is bright.

“People want to see (this city) grow and prosper,” says Kevin Vincent, who opened Newfound Sushi in March.

Montreal-based Kruger is assessing the viability of its Corner Brook mill after workers there rejected a pension restructuring proposal.

If the plant closes, the province estimates 1,700 job losses, roughly 630 from mill operations and the rest in spinoff jobs.

Dennis Bruce, a Corner Brook-based economist, has done some math, and if the mill shut down, he figures 4,000 fewer people would be working in the city than less than a decade ago.

“So the mill closure would not make Corner Brook a ghost town, but it would really, really hurt,” Bruce writes in an email.

But what’s being done to diversify the economy, which would ease some of pain?  What opportunities are facing the west coast city?

 

Looking to become college town

Many who spoke with The Telegram suggested focusing on Corner Brook’s role as a regional service centre. Bruce considers that a core strength.

Almost everyone interviewed pointed to Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Memorial’s Corner Brook campus.

In fact, becoming a college town is a plank the city government is trying to build the economy on.

Mayor Neville Greeley thinks the place could become like Antigonish or Wolfville, the Nova Scotia towns that are home to St. Francis Xavier and Acadia, respectively.

“Those opportunities are there for Corner Brook,” Greeley says. “Certainly, Memorial’s tuition rates and the expanding of programs, all those things, the direction Memorial is going, the direction the Grenfell campus is going, all of those things are key for us in diversifying the economy.”

Tom Marshall, MHA for Humber East and the province’s finance minister, believes Grenfell could become one of the country’s best liberal arts schools.

Becoming a college town is part of City Hall’s four-pronged plan. It also includes land development, cultural enterprise and becoming an innovative city.

The latter involves developing entrepreneurs and attracting new business. It’s not an easy thing to do, and it’s an area where Corner Brook needs to pull up its socks, according to some.

Last October, a Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) report on the country’s entrepreneurial cities report ranked Corner Brook 95th out of 100.

“Obviously, more needs to be done to make Corner Brook an entrepreneurial city,” the CFIB’s Bradley George says.

He notes only two per cent of those surveyed thought their city government had a good awareness of small business. The majority thought taxes were too high, he adds.

Greeley doesn’t agree with the CFIB ranking and questions the findings.

He says the city is doing all it can to create taxation, infrastructure and amenities that are attractive to businesses and their employees.

He adds council has compressed the city’s businesses taxes.

George acknowledges that, but suggests taxation is still too high.

“Really, what our members told us is that local government needs to be more sensitive to local business,” he says.

Others have questioned the innovative spirit in Corner Brook residents.

In April 2011, Rob Greenwood of the Memorial University’s Harris Centre boldly told the Humber Rotary Club attitude appears to be an obstacle.

He lumped the Corner Brook and Grand Falls-Windsor together, and said, “because they were mill towns, have a particular social stratum, perception and culture that is an impediment to innovation.”

Bruce, the economist, points to another issue facing Corner Brook.

He says there’s been an exodus of private money in recent years — the closing of a gypsum plant, Oceanex pulling out, and the slowdown at Humber Valley Resort — but no new private investment has replaced it.

“On top of that, Statistics Canada data reveals Corner Brook is one of the oldest communities by far in the province (of places of similar size) with over a third of homeowners being senior citizens and that amount is growing, so resident spending will continue to slow as well,” he writes.

Bruce, who notes strong provincial investment in Corner Brook in recent years, says people shouldn’t expect anything from Ottawa in the near to medium term.

“They’re pulling out too,” he writes.

However, Keith Goulding, president of the Greater Corner Brook Board of Trade, includes new money from Ottawa as one of the opportunities heading Corner Brook’s way.

He feels the newly established Qalipu First Nation Band will attract millions in federal investment to the west coast, as programs, like one for aboriginal entrepreneurs, are established.

“So that’s a new area of growth you’re going to see happening in the Corner Brook area in next year or two,” says Goulding, whose day job is with Qalipu.

The business leader is optimistic about the city’s future. He sees opportunities for business in supplying the proposed Lower Churchill development, in shipping, and in tourism.

As well, Goulding sees potential for Corner Brook businesses in St. John’s. He says the Avalon economy is booming and there’s work there for Corner Brook firms.

The amount of activity in St. John’s and across the province helped Grand Falls-Windsor after the Abitibi-Bowater mill closed three years ago.

Mayor Al Hawkins says fabrication shops that depended on the mill thrived on all the construction taking place in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“They were able to not downsize, but actually increase their numbers,” he says.

Grand Falls-Windsor is often used as an example of life after pulp.

Hawkins’ says things are “chugging along,” with all economic indicators looking positive and adds the town didn’t experience an economic lull after the mill closed.

Luckily, he explains, there was an alignment of the stars — Ottawa’s stimulus program, the region’s entry into the cranberry industry, and provincial assistance for displaced workers.

“A lot of things really happened that you wouldn’t really fell the full impact of an industry the magnitude of the pulp and paper industry closing. We were fortunate in being able to weather that storm as well as we did.”

His advice to Corner Brook — “Be positive.”

sbartlett@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @SteveBartlett_