Port Alberni’s Innovation Economy

Port Alberni is experiencing a boom, thanks to the right leadership, revitalized economic partnerships and an increased interest in the city. 

Port Alberni
Mayor of Port Alberni, Sharie Minions, pictured on the Somass Lands, a prime chunk of Port Alberni that unites the city with its waterfront. It’s “one of the most important pieces of Port Alberni’s future,” says Minions, who led Port Alberni to serve notice to and purchase the property from Western Forest Products. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

Sometimes, when the carrot doesn’t work you have to bring out the big stick.

The mayor of Port Alberni, Sharie Minions, and her council, got tired of looking at a prime chunk of Port Alberni waterfront known as the Somass Lands — five parcels, totalling 43 acres of former industrial land — remaining idle and neglected. 

In 2016, the owner, Western Forest Products (WFP), had closed its Somass sawmill. For the next five years, the Vancouver-based forestry giant sat on the property. When attempts to bring WFP to the table fell flat, city staffers mined the province’s Community Charter and found an obscure provision enabling a municipality to expropriate property under special circumstances. 

On June 22, 2021, Port Alberni served the logging company notice. That got its attention.

Two months later, the city closed a deal to purchase the land from WFP for $5.3-million. The land will be transformed to create permanent public access to the waterfront, which had previously been cut off.

“I would have preferred not to go that route, but we didn’t think it was acceptable for this land to sit vacant for almost half a decade,” says Minions. “I see this property as one of the most important pieces of Port Alberni’s future.”

Minions says the city has no plans to court another heavy industry tenant to fill the void.

“We feel it has a higher purpose,” says Minions.

And by a higher purpose, Minions means a mix of residential and commercial development, with some light industrial sprinkled into the mix. Right now, it’s blue-sky thinking. Whether or not the city takes on the role of developer, partners with private interests or sells it, is yet to be determined. But Minions says the city will be in the driver’s seat. 

It takes some creativity to see how Port Alberni’s future could be tied to this desolate-looking industrial land with rusting tin-roofed buildings and a remediation price tag that will likely top $1-million.

But Minions, who grew up in Port Alberni, left and and came back in 2010, has an infectious can-do attitude at the right moment in the history of this gritty city of 20,000, where at one time, a high school dropout could stumble into a high-paying mill job. Today, Minions’ aspirations reflect those of a more progressive demographic that sees innovation, technology, diversity and lifestyle as the town’s future calling card.

Last year the city experienced a 40 per cent increase
in the price of a single-family home, a higher year-over-year price jump than any other Vancouver Island municipality.

Suddenly, it’s on people’s radar — and for something other than the negative stereotypes of homelessness, drug addiction and a decaying downtown core of boarded-up buildings that barely hinted at the city’s fading 1950s and ‘60s glory as a roaring timber and fishing town. 

Port Alberni is now being seen as a place to live, start a business and invest. 

Business Is Brewing 

On a sunny break between rain showers, Port Alberni looks good from the rooftop patio of Dog Mountain Brewing, housed in a renovated two-storey building on 3rd Avenue. Alberni Inlet, rippled by a light wind, sparkles in the sun.

In the western distance, ragged clouds cling to the MacKenzie Range around Sutton Pass, where Highway 4 cuts through the mountains to Tofino and Ucluelet. The sawback ridgeline of Mount Arrowsmith, designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000, dominates the eastern horizon. 

Dog Mountain Brewing owners Robin Miles and Andy Richards, partners in life and business, are fresh off a big win at the Canadian Brewing Awards in Quebec where they took home gold for their BEES! Belgian Pale Ale with honey. 

Dog Mountain Brewing
Andy Richards (left) and Robin Miles (right) opened Dog Mountain Brewing in December 2019. This year their BEES! Belgian Pale Ale with honey took home gold at the Canadian Brewing Awards in Quebec, and their business is expanding. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

“We knew Port Alberni had potential, there was only one brewery at the time [now there are three], and we could afford to buy a building,” Miles explains as she prepares for an early afternoon opening.

“We got some pushback from people when we announced our plans on social media. They said we were going to put the other brewery out of business, but City Hall was super supportive.”

Their instincts were bang on. Despite the ill fortune of opening Dog Mountain in December 2019 — two months before COVID forced the hospitality sector into temporary hibernation — the brewery is flourishing.

The couple recently bought the house next door and will soon renovate it into a commercial kitchen, in order to make more room in the brewery for hophead customers.

Downtown is changing and Miles says, “There’s a buzz.” It has a diamond-in-the-rough feel to it, which is no doubt part of its growing hipster appeal. Within a 10-block radius, new businesses have been sprouting up and helping to transform what was the epitome of boarded up, urban decay into a place of potential and energy.

“There are still a lot of people that want Port Alberni to go back to the way it was, with high-paying mill jobs. Then there’s the young people moving to town who want other amenities.” — Robin Miles, Dog Mountain Brewing

A few blocks away from Dog Mountain Brewing, at Timber Tiles, on 2nd Avenue and Argyle, workers are producing innovative wooden tiles from custom retooled machinery at a rate of four per second. The company has a staff of eight, including founder and owner Mark Anson.

“We’re at 15 per cent capacity, and we plan to be ramping up soon,” says Anson.

Timber Tiles is doing something often talked about in the forest sector — creating value from wood waste. While working as a researcher at the private non-profit FPInnovations, Anson, an architect by profession, was exploring possible uses for hemlock that is still too wet for exporting after it goes through WFP’s Port Alberni kilns. 

“We tried making all kinds of things, including tiles,” says Anson.

In 2017, when they took some sample tiles to Vancouver’s Interior Design Show, he says the response was positive. But the tiles sat on a shelf at FPInnovations in Vancouver — a bright idea looking for someone to run with it. When COVID-19 landed like a bomb in early 2020, Anson lost his job at FPInnovations. He and his wife mortgaged their family house to start Timber Tiles.

Timber Tiles
At Timber Tiles, workers are producing innovative wooden tiles from wood waste and custom retooled machinery at a rate of four per second.

“Port Alberni was a natural [fit]. It had a workforce,
land prices were better and Western Forest Products was where
this idea started.”
— Mark Anson, Timber Tiles

Kelly Flurer, who co-owns Flurer Smokery with her husband, Brian, is another entrepreneur who has found success in Port Alberni, at Dock+, the region’s new food hub. Port Fish was once a bustling fish plant on the city’s waterfront near Harbour Quay.

But it had sat vacant for a decade — another albatross from days gone by and a big space looking for a fresh idea. So, the Port Alberni Port Authority, Island Coastal Economic Trust (ICET) and the City of Port Alberni teamed up to cobble together $1.5-million and renovate the space into an incubator and coworking space for value-added food businesses.

After a soft opening last spring, Dock+ is already at 100 per cent occupancy, with six tenants, including Eat Circadian Wellness, Cascadia Seaweed, Forest for Dinner, Canadian Seafood, Nova Harvest and Flurer Smokery.

“We wanted to be closer to the source of fish; we can get black cod, tuna and halibut, and it’s right out our front door,” says Flurer, about the decision to relocate from Campbell River. “And the opportunity to move into a brand-new facility was appealing.” 

According to the port authority, plans are already taking shape to expand Dock+ to the adjacent Somass Land site.

Innovation Economy 

Down at the Wildflower Bakeshop and Café, Pat Deakin, the economic development manager for Port Alberni, is all smiles. 

“I’ve been in my role for 14 years, and I’ve never experienced this kind of interest,” Deakin says. “It’s affirming — we’ve believed all along that Port Alberni has a future based on diversification.”

It’s not exactly revolutionary to hear an economic development staffer speak highly of their community — cheerleading is, after all, part of the job description. Yet Port Alberni is no longer content to stand on the sidelines and watch other Vancouver Island communities like Campbell River and Nanaimo nurture tech and investment.

To this end, Deakin says the city is embarking on an “innovation economy” initiative that will include a Spring Activator impact investment program and a Dragon’s Den, style tech competition that he hopes will be underway next fall. ICET has kicked in $84,000 in funding and a local investor, who prefers to remain anonymous, has committed an additional $50,000. 

In a fortuitous alignment, Raissa Espiritu practically landed in the city’s lap to head up the initiative as project manager. Espiritu is a successful, well-connected medical-tech entrepreneur who recently sold a company and moved from Toronto to Port Alberni, where her partner works as a pilot for Coulson Aviation. A year ago, she couldn’t have found Port Alberni on a map.

First order of business, says Espiritu, is doing an inventory of local innovators and entrepreneurs to see what they need in order to grow and scale. She may also be shaking the local trees and virtually knocking on the doors of some of the Sproat Lake mansions to see how to leverage latent investment capital in the Alberni Valley. 

But these are early days. Port Alberni isn’t the only community talking about the innovation economy. The forest sector hasn’t turned its back on the region, and that’s an ace in the hand for the city.

Paper Excellence’s Catalyst Port Alberni mill, which started operations in 1946, produces telephone directory, lightweight coated, and specialty papers for printers and publishers throughout North America, South America and Asia. Despite closing the Somass mill five years ago, WFP’s Alberni Pacific mill remains a thriving business and is now minority-owned by the Huu-ay-aht First Nations.

In 2017, San Group, a diverse Langley-based forest products manufacturer with operations around the world, bought Coulson Forest Products’ specialty cedar mill. This was followed up by the construction of a new $70-million processing facility with a finger jointing, lamination and small log line capable of milling logs with three-inch diameter tops. The San Group plant has added 130 high-paying jobs to the local economy.

Vancouver Island, let alone Port Alberni, hasn’t seen this kind of investment in the manufacturing of forest products in decades. Deakin calls the San Group’s investments a “tipping point” for Port Alberni.

Truth, Reconciliation and Partnerships 

The San Group is so enamoured with Port Alberni that it recently pitched a 1,500 to 2,200-unit housing project on property it owns on the outskirts of town.

It’s a bold proposal, maybe even a tad grandiose for a city that currently has just 6,500 homes. And according to Roger Nopper, the recently-hired CEO of the Hupacasath First Nation, the San Group committed an honest faux pas when it failed to consult his employer about the proposed residential development. The Hupacasath and the Tseshaht First Nations have overlapping rights and title claims in the Alberni Valley. 

Nothing happens in the Alberni Valley these days without engaging First Nations in a meaningful way. And the city is at a turning point in how it lives and works with its Indigenous neighbours. 

The past year has been a sobering one for Port Alberni — and all Canadians. The discovery last May of more than 200 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School brought attention to the Alberni residential school, which closed in 1973. 

The discovery sparked a renewed sense of cooperation and collaboration between the city and the two First Nations on whose territory Port Alberni was built, the Hupacasath and the Tseshaht.

“When the Kamloops residential school situation went down last May, it was heavy knowing we will have to do this at Alberni Residential School,” says Ken Watts, elected chief of the Tseshaht First Nation. “But I feel like more and more Canadians are walking shoulder-to-shoulder with us.”

Small gestures can go a long way towards truth and reconciliation, and this has been a year of milestones. Late last September, Watts gathered with school trustees, community members and students for the renaming of A.W. Neill Elementary School to Tsuma-as Elementary School, after the Nuu-chah-nulth name for the Somass River.

It was about much more than taking down one sign and putting up another. Neill is a dark character from the City’s past. He was mayor of Port Alberni and then MP for the riding of Comox-Alberni from 1921 to 1945. He was also a racist who supported Indian residential schools, anti-Chinese laws and the internment of Japanese people during the Second World War.

The decolonization of Port Alberni is happening in other ways as well. The city recently committed to a project that will remake the 40-year-old clock tower at the end of Harbour Quay into the “Story Tower,” which will recount the narrative of Tlukwatkwuis the Tseshaht winter village that existed on the site before settlers arrived.

“I feel we have a good government-to-government relationship with Port Alberni,” says Watts. “I meet with the mayor regularly.” 

Both First Nations are significant players in the local economy and are in a bullish mood, looking to grow their influence. 

The Hupacasath are 72.5 per cent owners of Upnit Power Corp., a 6.5 MW hydroelectric station on China Creek that powers 6,000 homes. The Nation of 350 members also owns Nootka Insurance Agency, Kleekhoot Gold Bigleaf Maple Syrup and Tsuumaas Seafood, and has numerous partnerships in the forest sector. However, Nopper says the Hupacasath are keen to look beyond raw resources and get involved in tech and innovation. 

“That’s what the young people are telling us they’re interested in,” says Nopper.

The Tseshaht own Orange Bridge Cannabis and Tseshaht Market, the last full-service gas station on the way to Ucluelet and Tofino. The Nation also runs a suite of forestry companies, including Cisaa Forestry Corporation, which manages two band-owned forest tenures, and Omoah Forestry Corporation, established as part of an agreement with WFP that gives the Tseshaht access to harvest and sell timber on Tree Farm Licence 44.

Currently, the Tseshaht are in the process of rezoning the land occupied by the closed Sproat Elementary School to make way for up to 50 units of market housing.

Watts says he’s excited about the future. Like Dog Mountain Brewing’s Robin Miles and Andy Richards, he’s also feeling the buzz.

Ken Watts
Ken Watts is the elected chief of the Tseshaht First Nation, one of the two First Nations on whose territory Port Alberni was built (the other is the Hupacasath Nation). He says the government of Port Alberni and the Tseshaht Nation enjoy a good relationship. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

“There’s a little boom happening. Families are moving here because it’s still affordable. But we want to make sure that Port Alberni does it right, that we have the infrastructure and services in place to handle the growth.”
— Chief Ken Watts, Tseshaht First Nation   

 For a community that has been saddled for decades with the negative stereotypes of a has-been resource boomtown, these seem like relatively good problems to have.

“I have to say, it feels good to hear people finally talking about Port Alberni in a positive light,” says Mayor Minions. 

On March 3 Douglas editor Carla Sorrell hosted a roundtable discussion with Port Alberni’s business leaders to expand upon the topics addressed in this feature. Click here to watch.