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Idea was originally proposed and explored in the wake after town's response to 9-11
GANDER — The access to supplies is something that has defined this early stage of 2020 in this province and beyond.
With the "Snowmaggedon" extreme weather in January and the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown happening in relatively short order, the access to crucial supplies has been trying at times.
Those events put the supply chain at the forefront for many, and at a recent Gander council meeting, correspondence from a resident wondered whether it was time for the town to again revisit the idea of establishing a supply distribution centre.
Citing the trouble getting supplies in the early stages of the pandemic and through the blizzard that hit the east coast of the province in January, the resident said it was a good time to see it explored again.
Council agreed and staff have started gathering information on the previous initiative in order to present their findings at a future meeting.
Dubbed the National and International Relief Distribution Centre, the project aimed to obtain and stockpile humanitarian relief supplies that would be diverted to a disaster area either locally, nationally or internationally if needed. It was to be modelled after a similar centre located in Copenhagen at the time.
The idea was first floated in 2000, but there was no movement on the initial idea. That changed in 2002 when a newly struck steering committee held its first meeting on Jan. 21, 2002.
“I thought it was feasible and I thought all we had to do was start out small and to develop that,” said Des Dillon, who served as the chairman of the committee and was the local Red Cross director. “There are so many instances where it is needed.”
The meeting came just months after the tragedy of 9-11 and a time when Gander provided relief services to thousands of Americans after they were stranded at Gander International Airport.
Then, cots, blankets, clothes and other supplies were needed and were provided by residents and humanitarian groups.
At the time, the committee believed the distribution centre would offer similar supplies, along with things like fridges and medical supplies. It would also have contracts with suppliers designed to keep supply prices low in the aftermath of a disaster.
Using the airport's central location when it comes to flight routes, they felt it was the logical choice to house such a centre.
A warehouse would be established, either at the airport or in the business park, to house the supplies.
“It made all the sense in the world.” — Claude Elliot
“At the time when they were looking at it, basically, we said Gander is the crossroads of the world, it's the closest airport when you get out over the ocean, the weather is almost nil here, you can get in and out any time, and we felt it was appropriate for this facility to be built right here in Gander,” said former mayor Claude Elliott. “It made all the sense in the world.”
The project was officially announced Dec. 9, 2002 and in the several years after, they completed a series of feasibility studies hoping to jumpstart the project.
The last one was completed in 2006 and didn’t see the project as feasible. However, in 2008, the provincial government gave the group $41,000 to help further look into the feasibility of the project.
Things proceeded from there to the federal level, where a presentation was given by the town, but things didn’t progress any further than that and the effort faltered, Elliott said.
The federal government couldn't commit to buying the relief supplies it could need partly because a similar service existed at Canadian Forces Base Trenton in Ontario.
"From what I recall without having the study in front of me, it needed sponsors from people who would say, 'Yes, we would buy supplies in case of emergency,'" said Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame MP Scott Simms, who was the region's federal representative at the time. "The Department of National Defence would not sanction it because they had a supply outfit in Trention, Ontario."
Still, both Dillon and Elliott say the relief centre is something that could still work today and Gander remains the perfect place for it.
“It is a crazy world we live in and the way the world is going, we’re probably going to see more of it,” said Elliott.
Nicholas Mercer is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering Central Newfoundland for Saltwire Network