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Port Alberni relishes ‘new baby’ as sawmill starts to roll; $150M invested over 3 years

The Langley-based San Group, which has invested more than $150 million in Port Alberni’s lumber-manufacturing industry over the past three years, got a small reward Friday as it watched the first log pass through its newly built sawmill.
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San Group's newly built sawmill at Port Alberni.

The Langley-based San Group, which has invested more than $150 million in Port Alberni’s lumber-manufacturing industry over the past three years, got a small reward Friday as it watched the first log pass through its newly built sawmill.

It was a minor return on a very heavy bet, but for San Group chief executive Kamal Sanghera, it was everything.

“It’s a very proud day for myself and my family, a very big day,” said Sanghera.

“It’s exciting, almost like a new baby being born — a new member of the family coming up.”

The mill, believed to be the first of its size built in B.C. in 15 years, is the latest Port Alberni venture for the company, which purchased Coulson Manufacturing in 2017.

It followed up by buying 25 acres of land from Paper  Excellence in 2018, where it is building a lumber re-manufacturing facility.

It also bought the Chalwood Forest Products mill this year after it had been shut down for a year.

The new mill sits on the Coulson site beside the existing facility and has the technology to cut second- and third-growth, small-diameter logs.

Sanghera said he knows the company has bet heavily on Port Alberni, but he believes it’s smart money.

“There is value out there,” he said of the vast forests that surround the town.

Like many in the community, San Group didn’t understand why logs were being trucked away for export or to be milled in other communities, he said.

“The opportunity is right here,” Sanghera said. Land and mills have been available and there’s a deep-water port.

“You can create your own future right here in this area. We picked this community to revive it and things are happening.”

Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions said the mill’s launch is a boost of economic confidence, not just in the forest sector, but in the Alberni Valley as a whole.

“It’s been really exciting to see investment, not only in the forest sector but in particular the high-value forest sector,” she said. “And we are starting to see the impact of people starting to be hired and machines being fired up.”

She said the region has seen some movement in the aquaculture and seafood processing over the past several years, but a shot in the arm for forestry is good for everyone.

“It’s all inter-related — the more investment we get in one area, the easier it is to have groups invest in another,” she said. “This brings more hope to forestry in terms of longevity and sustainability.”

Sanghera said the company is blazing a new trail — rather than manufacturing what they can and pushing it out onto the market, they ask their customers what they want and go about making it.

“We do things differently — we go a little against the grain,” he said. “We are starting a new era in lumber manufacturing.”

At the same time, Sanghera said he believes in traditional community building. “We are going back to our roots and what B.C. and Canada is all about — manufacturing and creating value right here for people in the community. This is about the future and the legacy for us. And it’s about offering the value of each tree harvested in B.C. to benefit British Columbians and Canadians.”

When the re-manufacturing plant is running at capacity — which is expected to be in July — the company will have 1,100 employees, most of them in Port Alberni.

Brian Butler, president of Steelworkers Local 1937, said the union is happy to see companies like San Group “investing in a new log line to handle that second growth that we will be seeing more of in the coming years.”

“You don’t see a lot of companies investing in new equipment to that extent,” he said. “It’s all obviously good news.”

Butler said San Group’s move to the Island has made a difference in terms of stability. As the mills ramp up production capacity, it should also have a meaningful impact on employment and the number of logs that leave the valley, he said.

“There’s lots of logs in that valley. Expansion of manufacturing is warranted,” he said. “We definitely want to see more logs being processed here and more lumber staying here and not being processed in the U.S.”

Sanghera is keen to do just that, but said the company struggles with fibre supply and has petitioned the province for help ensuring logs from the valley are milled in the valley and local manufacturers are taken care of before foreign interests.

“We need to create the maximum amount of jobs for Canadians and British Columbians first before raw logs can be exported,” he said. “I’m asking all levels of government to find out how to keep jobs here.”