The Fort Frances paper mill will not be off future council agendas anytime soon. Whether it be demolition, redevelopment or cleanup, there is much work to be done before it becomes in the rearview mirror.
Along with the pandemic challenges, Coun. Andrew Hallikas said council had to deal with the biggest economic challenge being the repercussions of the mill shutting down right off the bat, beginning with a reduced tax assessment.
“The reduced tax assessment greatly affected the town’s taxbase and the ability to raise money to provide services,” Hallikas said. “As more buildings become demolished, the land value is reduced and the tax assessment decreases.”
The decreased assessment is retroactive, Hallikas said, because when the mill ceased operations, the town had to repay taxes that had already been paid.
“We got into a double whammy where we lost assessment, so our revenue went down and we had to repay this money,” Hallikas added.
The reduced tax assessment is not the only challenge facing the town. Coun. Rick Wiedenhoeft said his main concern is demolition cleanup.
Wiedenhoeft said he has been an advocate of staying on top of demolition updates because he is afraid the town would be left in a mess without proper cleanup.
Demolition of the mill, administered by the Canadian National Demolition (CND) began in November 2020. CND’s president, Jeff Norton, told council demolition and cleanup would be done by next year. But Wiedenhoeft said he believes otherwise.
“It’s very time sensitive because they claim to be able to finish the job within the next year,” Wiedenhoeft said. “If you go by the mill site and look at all the mess that’s there and the buildings that still have to be torn down, I don’t see how they can do it within a year.”
As for the future of the standing mill buildings being the Kraft Mill and Biomass, Hallikas said he understands this is private property, but if some buildings were left standing they could be sold to a different business. This would be advantageous to the community because it would increase the taxbase, Hallikas added.
Wiedenhoeft echoed Hallikas, adding that there is a possibility that the Biomass could still be viable in the future.
“This will require the wood and fibre capacity from the Boundary Water Forest that exists right now,” Wiedenhoeft said. “I’m not sure the rest of the mill is viable anymore. It’s half torn down. I have hope for the Biomass and we have had some interest in that structure.”
Wood from the forest could still be utilized, Coun. Mike Behan said.
“Hopefully we can work together to find a company or somebody to come into town and set up shop and utilize the fibre that is available in the forest, while creating jobs and expanding our tax base and addressing the labour shortage that our district is facing right now,” Behan said.
Fort Frances Mayor June Caul said when this council took over, the first challenge was getting a business to purchase the mill.
“We were up against a powerful company that did not want to share the wealth of our forest with anybody,” Caul said. “They did not want anybody to compete with their mill.”
Coun. Douglas Judson also said council was thrown from the frying pan into the fire at the start of the council term in 2019 which kicked off a very highly publicized political fight for the future of the paper mill.
“Ultimately it wasn’t one that we won. But I think that it helps convey an important message to industry and to our fairly new provincial government as well about the aspirations we have for our community and how we expect local forest resources to be used for economic development,” Judson said.
That being said, Judson noted that it is this council’s job to set the stage for what comes next. However, he said the ship has sailed and that there will be no mill, at least in the current location.
Judson said the shift in property repurposing could be geared towards tourism, adding that he is aware of new business ventures that are looking at opportunities proximate to the river.
“The [mill] property has been gutted and destroyed since that time,” Judson said. “I think that there’s an opportunity right now to refocus the community’s waterfront away from industry and reclaim it for other purposes and serve the community. The entire town has always been built around the mill but now we can do something different and that alone is a great opportunity.”
Coun. Wendy Brunetta also said she is looking forward to what comes next, even though many people are sad to see what used to be the economic engine of the town demolished.
“With the elimination of single-use plastics, we are looking towards a greener future,” Brunetta said. “People used to cross the border and smell that stinky mill. That’s the identity we had. And we want a different identity. We want to be clean, friendly and beautiful. That’s really where I think we need to move forward.”