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Port Alberni says announcement on Somass lands coming Tuesday

The city is expected to reveal the name of the developer for the 43-acre waterfront former mill site

The City of Port Alberni will announce Tuesday the name of the developer for its 43-acre Somass lands, a waterfront former mill site.

No name is being released beforehand but Mayor Sharie Minions had a hint: “It is someone who is well-known. It is not a small developer.”

Last year, the city issued a request for expressions of interest in the property, asking developers and other potential users to come forward with concepts for all or part of the land.

A total of 16 responses were received by the city in October 2022. Half came from developers wanting to work on the entire site, while the remainder were from operators and businesses interested in a smaller amount of land.

The choice was narrowed down to two proponents. “We did find a developer that has the capacity and that has a history of doing projects very similar to this,” said Minions, who described the project as being a “transformational shift for our community.”

One developer that could be a front-runner is Langley-based San Group. A company official did not return a call from the Times Colonist this past week.

The forest-products company has invested more than $100 ­million in Port Alberni in just over four years and said in 2021 that it was interested in buying the site from Western Forest Products.

“We believe we can turn it into much higher value for the community,” a company spokesman said at the time.

The San Group has set up milling operations and a large value-added plant in the area, and has taken control of one of the city’s deep-water berths for global shipping.

San’s 300,000-square-foot value-added plant is on 25 acres of industrial land that sat idle for about two decades. “San believes it can revitalize the Somass site the same way,” the representative said in 2021.

Development of the Somass lands is central to the city’s aim to improve waterfront access and create jobs. The goal is to foster a mix of uses, including housing, parks, paths and light industry.

Minions said while a letter of intent has been signed with the developer, a detailed development agreement still has to be negotiated.

She was unable to say whether the developer would buy the land or lease it because that still needs to be settled, likely over the next couple of months.

At that point, the developer will lead a master-planning process, working with the city. The proponent has proposed a “pretty engaged process with the community to take input on what everyone would like,” Minions said.

“They’re obviously following on our overall vision for the site being mixed-use.”

The industrial site will have to go through a rezoning. “We have committed to the developer that we are going to prioritize that work.”

Western Forest Products shut the mill down in July 2017 amid the uncertainty of a softwood lumber dispute with the United States and ongoing log-supply challenges.

In 2021, the city paid $5.3 million for the property, which consists of five parcels with a parking lot.

The city is in the midst of environmental remediation of the industrial lands using $1 million in grant funding, although work was stalled in mid-October after a suspicious fire at the old mill.

At its peak, flames rose three storeys high, though the blaze affected less than a quarter of the building.

Clean-up work is progressing well, Minions said. Areas with the highest contamination have been removed and testing is underway to confirm whether more work needs to be done.

Several mill buildings are gone, too, she said. “The landscape of the site is really changing.”