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Rickford vows to bring jobs to Fort Frances mill site, tackle wood supply issues

Minister said Resolute Forest Products willing to find solution
Abitibi Mill Fort Frances 1 (2)

Energy, Northern Development and Mines Minister Greg Rickford made no promises of restarting the shuttered Fort Frances pulp and paper mill in its entirety. But he’s willing to try and mend fences between Resolute Forest Products and the Town of Fort Frances to put people back to the work at the mill property.

“Our goal is to ensure that the mill site can once again benefit the hardworking people of the region,” said the Kenora-Rainy River MPP in an Aug. 16 statement.

Earlier this week, Fort Frances Mayor June Caul and her council called on Queen’s Park to revoke the Sustainable Forest Licence (SFL) held by Resolute on the Crossroute Forest and give the wood allotment to new forestry players willing to invest and restore manufacturing jobs in their community.

The Crossroute is a Crown forest management unit outside of town that historically fed fibre to the pulp and paper operation. Resolute closed the mill in 2014.

After learning in July that Resolute had sold the mill property to Riversedge Developments, a brownfield redevelopment company, town officials were angered that the Montreal paper producer imposed restrictive conditions – through a covenant agreement – on the use of the property, basically ensuring that the site could never be used again for pulp and paper production.

The municipality is fighting against a potential demolition of the mill buildings and wants the operation powered up again under a new startup company, Rainy River Packaging.

Resolute claims it is only protecting its business interests in the region against any potential competitors.

The price of the transaction is also disputed as being anywhere from $1 to $1 million.

Town officials argue the provincial SFL agreement historically ties the wood supply to the Fort Frances mill, and that there is enough fibre on the Crossroute to open up the unit to other forestry players.

Fort Frances is working with the province to establish a new community-led forest tenure called an Enhanced Sustainable Forest Licence (ESFL).

Resolute argues is it operating within the “letter and spirit” of the SFL agreement.

Rickford said he met with Resolute Forest Products officials on Aug. 14 to “express my frustrations and serious concerns …about the terms of Fort Frances mill site sale, and access to fibre in the Crossroute Forest moving forward.

“I told them I remain committed to working with the mayor and council and other stakeholders, as we have been over the past several months, to support any interest by forestry companies to use the mill site in whole or in part should a business case exist for an interested forestry company to use the site.”

Rickford said based on their “robust discussion” over the Crossroute Forest, Resolute seemed receptive to working with the government on finding a solution.

In his statement, Rickford said Resolute needs to do a better job of publicly explaining how fibre harvested from the Rainy River District is used by area mills, but at the same time other forestry players must be allowed greater access to Crown wood.

“While the decision regarding the sale of the facility is a private matter between Resolute and Riversedge, I was encouraged by our conversation and their willingness to collaborate.”

Rickford said he’ll work with Natural Resources and Forestry Minister John Yakabuski to discuss options on how to move forward on Fort Frances’ wish for an ESFL for the Crossroute.

“Forestry operators across Northern Ontario need more certainty and greater access to fibre to support growth in the sector moving forward. Our government will proceed with a new province-wide forestry strategy that will allow for more access to fibre from across the province, under a model that is sustainable and renewable, and supports good-paying jobs and a wide range of social, environmental and economic benefits.

The new site owners, Riversedge Developments, are floating the idea of a large-scale cannabis operation on the site.

Mayor Caul seemed cool to the proposal during the press conference, suggesting she would rather see the mill site returned to its original use.