Port Alberni poised for a waterfront transformation after buying sawmill lands

The Somass sawmill lands have been sold to the City of Port Alberni for $5.3 million, setting the stage for the transformation of the waterfront property into a mix of parks, retail, offices and housing.

Light industrial uses could include manufacturing and enhance the forestry and marine sectors. A waterfront walkway is planned. Local small businesses could produce and sell their own products under the city’s vision.

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The city has bought five parcels totalling about 50 acres from Western Forest Products, which is holding onto the land for six months while it removes its assets.

Mayor Sharie Minions said the property is centrally located in the city, which has about 17,000 residents.

“It is such a critical piece,” she said. “We just felt this was too big of an opportunity to let pass by. It is very exciting.”

Acquiring the Somass Lands and adjacent parking lot has been a primary goal of city council since the 2018 election, she said.

“Remediating and redeveloping these lands in a way that recognizes the shifting nature of our vibrant community represents a fundamental shift for the city of Port Alberni, and council is thrilled to be embarking on this project.”

City council would have rather seen the mill — shut since early 2017 — operate again. But that wasn’t happening, and the city announced in June that it would expropriate the land.

Another lumber company, the San Group of Langley, said it was also interested in the property and believed it could turn the site into something of higher value, but the city and Western negotiated a sales agreement.

Port Alberni is using reserve funds to pay for the land.

The purchase is for the sawmill site, its parking lot, two properties that include Harbour Road and the railway right-of-way between Argyle Street and the northern entrance to the mill, and a separate linear strip.

By buying the smaller parcels as well, the city gains full ownership of Harbour Road and a rail corridor providing access to waterfront properties, Minions said. “This will enable a strategic and well-planned redevelopment of these key areas.”

The Alberni Inlet community’s strategic plan aims to open up public access to the waterfront and develop a waterfront economy.

Port Alberni is taking on the responsibility of cleaning up the site, which was bought in “as is” condition. Initial work has been carried out. The municipality is hoping to receive grants to help cover the costs of receiving a provincial certificate of compliance for remediation, which would allow redevelopment to go ahead.

Port Alberni is not planning to construct buildings itself. “Council intends to make the remainder of the site available for sale either as a whole or in smaller parcels to enable redevelopment of the site at its highest and best use,” Minions said.

But before construction starts, there’s plenty of work to do. This includes hiring a firm to demolish what’s left on the properties, holding public consultation sessions and going through the rezoning and subdivision process at city hall.

“We are talking about several years to turn this around,” said Tim Pley, Port Alberni chief administrative officer.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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