Houston mayor Shane Brienen has a short message for his community.
“We’ve been through this before and we’re going to work through this again.”
Just a day after the largest employer in the town, Canfor, announced it was closing its sawmill in April affecting hundreds of workers directly and more people who cut the trees and truck them to the mill, Brienen is advocating for calmness.
It was just nine years ago that Houston went through a similar shock when Canfor and West Fraser finished a timber swap so that Canfor ended up with West Fraser’s Houston area wood and West Fraser ended up with Canfor’s wood in the Quesnel area.
The result was a closure of West Fraser’s mill in Houston in 2014 and a closure of Canfor’s mill in Quesnel.
“We’ve had practice at this. We’ve had the college pull out. We’ve had people leave, but we’ve surprised everyone and we can do it again,” said Brienen.
It’s a theme Brienen will be taking into talks with Canfor and with senior government officials as more becomes known about the company’s plans.
What does make Brienen nervous, however, is that while Canfor is closing its mill as of April, its board of directors won’t be making a decision about replacing it with a more modern facility until June.
“I think that as a council you don’t want to panic and you don’t want people to panic as well,” Brienen continued.
“People are still processing the news. They’ll be making their own decisions. But what I want people to know that they will have the recreation and other services of the District,” he said.
That’s because the District just this month adopted a series of bylaws which reallocated the District’s cash reserves, setting up a budget stabilization fund and an emergency fund of $1.65 million each.
Each are intended to see the District and its residents through tough spots when unexpected events or circumstances might have a financial impact on the local government.
Brienen said discussions about the need to set aside a financial cushion began some years ago and accelerated in consideration of a significant impact such as a mill closure.
He also remembers asking the province for several million dollars to stabilize the District’s finances when 2014 mill closure took place.
“We said then we don’t want to be known as a community that collects EI. What we said then and I’ll say it again now, since 1980 the mills in Houston have paid $1 billion in stumpage to the province,” said Brienen.
While that was money paid by companies, it also represented the worth and value of the workers’ contributions, he said.
“We have three people on council who went through this last time. We know how this stuff works. This might be different than the last one, the government is different but we know what to expect.”
And as a sign of the local council’s confidence in the community its future, it has already signed several millions of dollars of contracts to continue the modernization of below ground civic works and above ground improvements within its downtown core.
It’s part of a long-range revitalization plan that forms part of the District’s response to the 2014 mill closure by positioning the community for economic diversification.
The work to take place this summer was planned for last year but stalled when the District could not find contractors to take on the project.
“The grant money is there. There’s no going back on it,” said Brienen of the confidence the council has in the community.
He said the council is planning a town hall meeting in several weeks to explain its plans and to pass along what more it has learned after speaking with Canfor and senior governments.