Port Alberni’s economy has received a huge boost with news that San Group Inc. will put $60 million to $70 million into a trio of mills and provide employment for about 135 people in three phases.
The centrepiece will be a HewSaw mill, designed in Finland, that specializes in small-dimension wood.
To build the new sawmill, family-owned San Group, based in Langley, is buying 25 acres at the Catalyst Paper site in Port Alberni, and will provide Catalyst with wood chips.
“Today’s agreement demonstrates how two complementary industries can work together,” San Group CEO Kamal Sanghera said in a statement. “We have found a perfect synergy between two Canadian manufacturers and it’s the proverbial win-win for both the companies and the local workforce.”
Construction of the new sawmill is scheduled to begin in the spring and involve about 50 people. About 85 jobs are expected to be created as the sawmill starts up in two phases.
“Of primary importance to the San Group is the opportunity to take Canadian-owned resources, and create local jobs out of them,” Sanghera said.
“We take great pride in maximizing every aspect of the wood product, from harvesting to processing and remanufacturing.”
The HewSaw mill will run in concert with Catalyst.
“They will use the steam from the Catalyst mill to run kilns for them, and the chips from this process will go straight into helping make paper,” said Port Alberni Mayor Mike Rutten, who was briefed on the plans.
“It’s essentially a really interesting partnership between the two. San will be able to use the small wood, the second growth, the small trees that currently are shipped over the Hump and dealt with on the east side of the Island, or they go onto ships and they get exported raw from there.”
The Hump is a steep stretch of mountain road outside Port Alberni.
Ruttan said mills currently in the area are built to handle large or old-growth trees.
The San site will also have two other mills.
“They take wood that isn’t highly valued and put it together with wood that is highly valued,” Ruttan said. “Its finished product has tremendous value, and they export it or use it locally.”
The company will take cedar, for example, and laminate it to other wood to create a high-value product with a cedar finish for uses like home exterior and flooring.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for us as a community,” Ruttan said. “But more importantly, it says from San: ‘Look, we think this community’s future is strong enough and our relationship with the city is strong enough and the relationship with the whole investment community is strong enough that we’re going to invest this money.’ ”
San already has a presence in Port Alberni, running the Coulson mill, which specializes in Western red cedar products.
Port Alberni has a population of about 18,000 in the city limits and 25,000 overall in the Alberni Valley.
“Employment is really good right now,” Ruttan said.
“We’re looking for people and it doesn’t matter which sector you’re talking about — whether it be tourism or whether it be anything to do with forestry or agriculture or shipbuilding or aerospace or education.”
There were more difficult times in 2017 when the city’s Somass sawmill shut down because of a lack of log supply and the effects of the softwood-lumber dispute between Canada and the United States.