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Port Alberni’s food hub a hit with small businesses processing local resources

When Kelly and Brian Flurer relocated their seafood-smoking business to Port Alberni from Campbell River, they became part of a community of small local companies sharing space in a renovated fish plant.

When Kelly and Brian Flurer relocated their seafood-smoking business to Port Alberni from Campbell River, they became part of a community of small local companies sharing space in a renovated fish plant.

Previously called Port Fish, a one-time major employer, the plant had been idled for a decade. It was brought back to life to serve as an incubator for food-processing businesses working with sustainably harvested local resources. That’s everything from seaweed to mushrooms and other wild edible products, to oyster and geoduck seeds.

The Dock+ food hub is one of a dozen in the province, all aiming to encourage greater food security and innovation. The Port Alberni hub celebrated its grand opening on Friday.

After opening last year, it quickly filled with businesses keen to take advantage of modern equipment in a federally certified facility. As tenants, the small businesses and start-ups did not face the prohibitive cost of building and winning federal certification for their own plant.

The facility is providing opportunities, Kelly Flurer said. There’s a shortage of federally approved plants on the Island, and small businesses would not be able to meet standards required and shoulder the costs of constructing a building.

“This is a huge opportunity for a lot of companies,” she said.

Moving to Port Alberni gave Flurer Smokery Ltd., founded in 2008, better access to a diversity of well-priced seafood caught off the Island’s West Coast. It also “opened a lot of doors” to a larger customer base, Kelly Flurer said.

The couple are hands-on at the smokery, working in the plant and taking their products to farmers’ markets. Another company sells their smoked seafood to markets on the Lower Mainland.

Flurer Smokery works with First Nations bands, anglers and commercial fishermen. Brian Flurer is affiliated with the Dene Nation near Yellowknife.

The company manages an ice plant, blast freezer and offers freezer storage on behalf of the Port Alberni Port Authority, The Dock+ owner.

Mica Verbrugge, owner of Canadian Seafood Processing Inc. and Effingham Oysters, was hunting for a new place to process oysters. He found The Dock+ a perfect fit for his business.

The hub has allowed him to expand inventory and services.

This year, his company launched an online store to sell fresh and frozen products, delivering on Vancouver Island and to the Lower Mainland.

Inventory includes spot prawns, lingcod, salmon, tuna, oysters, sablefish and halibut for commercial and private customers.

Similar to other sectors in B.C., Canadian Seafood faces a labour shortage, said Victoria Lake, company quality manager. The company has five people working now and wants to increase that to 16.

The Dock+ opened after an investment of about $1.5 million. Support came from the province, the City of Port Alberni, the Port Authority and the Island Coastal Economic Trust.

B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture wants the hubs to increase food security and encourage innovation as local businesses grow.

Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said earlier that COVID led to challenges for small businesses and families seeking good quality, safe, local food.

“With each new food hub, we’re giving more small- and medium-sized businesses room to grow, creating jobs and helping communities connect with local food.”

Provincial funding for food hub network is part of B.C.’s $10-billion response to the pandemic.

Dave McCormick, director of public relations and business development for the port authority, said it didn’t make economic sense to try to restart its old fish plant with only one tenant. It seemed to have more potential to renovate the plant, giving it a reboot to take in multiple tenants working on seafood processing and agricultural products, and earning government certifications.

“They [the tenants] didn’t have to worry about the bricks and mortar,” McCormick said. The facility also has a 1,254-square-foot commercial kitchen which produces everything from baked goods to savoury soups.

McCormick said he regularly hears from businesses keen to move in. At present, all the rentable space, except for the kitchen, is spoken for.