Port Alberni stages Dragon's Den-style competition for entrepreneurs

It’s the age of innovation in Port Alberni, where an economic revival has been picking up steam after decades of ­struggles in the fishing and forestry ­sectors.

Investment announcements and new products have been rolling out steadily in recent months in the city of about 18,000.

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Now the city is putting together an angel investor group to stage a Dragon’s Den-style competition for innovative entrepreneurs.

A group of promising ­companies will make ­presentations to the investors, who will decide as a group or individually whether to put money into their ventures, says Pat Deakin, Port Alberni’s economic development manager.

An angel investor is typically a wealthy person who puts their own money into a start-up company and receives an interest in the business.

One high-tech businessperson has already committed $50,000 per year for two years toward the angel investor program, Deakin said.

The city is advertising for an innovation economy project manager, to be hired at the end of this month.

The project manager, working with a consultant, will help businesses access training and mentoring and guide them through challenges, Deakin said.

The job starts with a six-month contract that could be extended for a total of two years. Applications are being taken until Wednesday.

“We are transitioning the economy,” Deakin said. “It’s a very, very exciting time. Literally, every week, and sometimes more often than once a week, we are getting inquiries from developers that want to be a part of what’s going on.”

The city announced last month that it had purchased the Somass sawmill from Western Forest Products for $5.3 million and plans to clean up the ­property to develop a vibrant mixed-use site on the waterfront, featuring offices, light manufacturing, parks, retail and housing. Once a major employer, the now defunct sawmill last turned out lumber in 2017.

Three brew pubs are open now and two distilleries are in the works, said Deakin, who estimates that about 1,500 people have moved into Port Alberni in the past two years.

One high-profile example of innovation in the community is a new “food hub” housed in what was an unused fish-processing plant, now called The Dock+. Tenants include Nova Harvest, offering oyster and geoduck seed, Alberni Ice, Circadian Wellness specializing in ­mushroom products, Forest for Dinner selling mushrooms and other wild edible products and Flurer Smokery providing smoked seafood. The property includes a commercial kitchen. (thedockplus.ca)

More than $1 million has been provided to modernize the plant and put in new facilities for the initiative, supported by the province, city, Island Coastal Economic Trust, and Port Alberni Port Authority.

The Island Coastal Economic Trust estimates the venture will create more than $5 million annually in new economic activity and add close to 30 permanent jobs.

Meanwhile, Paper Excellence, owner of the city’s paper mill with about 300 employees, is investing $13 million in capital improvements to diversify into higher-value markets.

Another anchor in the local economy is the Langley-based San Group of Companies, which in recent weeks unveiled plans for 2,800 new homes in a mix of housing types on 73 acres in Port Alberni.

By the time the property is built out, it will have an estimated value of about $1 billion, the company said.

That announcement follows four years of major investment in Port Alberni by the San Group, which has a total of 425 workers in the city and is building homes to provide housing for more.

The company has spent about $100 million to set up three lumber-manufacturing facilities, including a 300,000-square-foot value-added plant, consisting of seven inter-connected buildings turning out more than 30 products.

That plant produces engineered wood products, has a paint-and-staining line, and can dry up to 440,000 board feet of wood daily, said company spokesman Mike Ruttan.

A new line is going in using robotics to carry out double-coating (covering each side) of materials such as wood or wood products, he said.

Different species of wood, including ones historically seen as low-value like alder, are being used in that plant.

In June, the San Group announced it was investing $15 million to partner with the Port Alberni Port Authority to upgrade and take over Berth Three, the largest of the deep-sea berths at the port. Storage silos and dockside cranes will be going in to allow San Group to grow its value-added forestry business.

Port Alberni has garnered international attention as the home base of the privately owned family company Coulson Group, which has played a key role in fighting wildfires in California and elsewhere in the U.S., Australia and Chile.

Coulson started with forestry in 1960. Over the years, it moved into aviation, lumber manufacturing, logging, gaming, and ice blast cleaning technology.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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