For four years, Somass Sawmill in Port Alberni has been virtually silent. Owners Western Forest Products curtailed production at the waterfront mill in 2017, and aside from occasionally using the kilns or storing a large pile of woodchips on the site, there hasn’t been any movement.
Until last week, that is.
Less than three weeks after the City of Port Alberni served Western with a notice of expropriation for the 43-acre Somass lands, workers were at the site removing equipment. An employee who didn’t want to be named said word was spread to other Western divisions that they had until July 23 to come and take whatever equipment they were able to move. He said he hadn’t been told whether he would still have a job after that.
A crane was at the site Friday afternoon and some equipment was loaded onto a flatdeck awaiting transport. A forklift was working in another building. More than a dozen vehicles left the site shortly after 4:30 p.m.
The city has been silent about the mill since just after the expropriation announcement. Mayor Sharie Minions said on June 24 that she had spoken with Western’s Don Demens and that the city was hoping to set up negotiations with the forestry company in early July.
The decision to serve notice of expropriation wasn’t made without due diligence, she said. “We’re entering the phase where we fully assess the risk.”
It was premature to discuss what fair market value would be for the property, she said. Western has paid $459,000 annually in property taxes while the mill has been idle, but she said the moment Western decided to permanently curtail or close the mill that number would go down “drastically.”
“It’s not as if we’re saying we don’t know what the price will be but we’ll pay regardless…what we’ve done is hold the property (to see) if the risk and reward are acceptable to us.
“I know people have a lot of questions. Some things we aren’t able to address until we go through that due diligence phase.”
While Western didn’t seem to have any interest in running Somass as a sawmill, San Group of Companies has been vocal about their desire to own the property for the past five years, spokesperson Mike Ruttan said.
“San is still very, very interested in that site,” Ruttan said, especially since the Langley-based forestry company has taken over a portion of the Port Alberni Port Authority’s shipping facility. “The Somass site is really important for expansion of operations that San sees for the port.”
He said the company needs more storage space and would like to further expand its value-added capabilities. The Somass site could also be an opportunity to include other companies in shipping products by water.
Minions said if they city was to acquire the land, they aren’t looking at a single owner. “We do intend to connect with San Group on the property and share our vision,” she said. “It’s too soon to be talking about who is going to get what pieces of the property.
“We see many uses for that site. It’s important for us moving forward.” Top priority would be increasing public access to the waterfront, she said.