Belledune faces 'long road to recovery' after Brunswick Smelter closes

People in Belledune continue to come to grips with news the Brunswick Smelter will permanently close by Dec. 31, but for the former mayor of Dalhousie, it feels like déjà vu.

Clem Tremblay says Glencore Canada Corp.'s announcement Wednesday brought back bad memories of 2008, when the AbitibiBowater paper mill and Olin chemical plant in his northern New Brunswick town closed.

"There were some hard, hard nights," recalled Tremblay, who served on council for 30 years, until 2016.

"I pity Belledune."

Tremblay expects it will take years for the village to recover from the loss of the lead smelter, which has been operating since 1966. It employed 420 people and provided spinoff benefits to the Port of Belledune, contractors, truck drivers and a variety of other businesses.

"We are 11 years down the road, and we're just starting to see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel," he said of Dalhousie.

Dalhousie had to reinvent itself when it lost the 78-year-old mill, along with about 450 well-paying jobs, said Tremblay. And it "hit a lot of stumbles" along the way.

"As we speak, it's still [a] process to try to diversify ourselves from what we used to be to where we want to be."

But the town has seen success with tourism, banking on its hiking trails, the Restigouche River, and nearby Sugarloaf Mountain, he said.

Tremblay is confident Belledune, about 55 kilometres southeast, will also find a new anchor employer. The key, he said, is to stay positive. 

Post-secondary Education, Training and Labour Minister Trevor Holder said the provincial government is prepared to allocate resources to help the region rebound from the economic blow. 

The field of opportunities is very, very slim. - Clem Tremblay, former Dalhousie mayor

"We want to send a very clear message to the people of Belledune and the people of the whole region that whatever we need to do to work with this community, those resources will be made available," he said after attending an emergency meeting Thursday with regional leaders, business owners and the affected employees.

The meeting included representatives of the Restigouche and Chaleur regional service commissions, the mayors of Belledune and Atholville, the Restigouche and Chaleur chambers of commerce, Canada Business Development Corporations and three union representatives.

"We made a commitment that we're all going to work together all across party lines to make sure that we do everything we can to transition the economy," said Holder.

He expects this will include retraining programs and working with the federal government to possibly create a special employment insurance program.

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Tremblay commended the government for acting quickly to help. Belledune council will soon face some "hard decisions," he said.

The smelter plant provides about $800,000 in property tax revenue — roughly 16 per cent of the village's total budget. But that revenue will be cut in half in 2020, decrease another 25 per cent the following year, and the remaining 25 per cent the year after that, said Tremblay, a retired property assessor for the province.

Other property values will also likely drop.

"Five years down the road, holding the bag for revenues is going to be the citizens of Belledune," he said. "And it's going to be a long road to recovery."

Limited options for site

Tremblay said other companies might express interest in the smelter site in the coming weeks or months, but he expects Glencore will impose restrictions that any new industry won't compete with its operations.

An industrial use is the most likely though, he said. Otherwise, an environmental impact assessment will be required.

In Dalhousie, someone had proposed a condo development for the former mill site, said Tremblay.

"But nobody wants to touch that with a 20-foot pole because once you start digging under that ground, then you'll have to stop everything and go through an EI assessment.

"So [Belledune council is] going to be limited on what they could put on there and what they could do. And in the meantime, the expertise of workers will probably be gone," as they leave to find new jobs or retire, he said. "So the field of opportunities is very, very slim."

Tremblay encourages council to seek the advice and input of consultants and residents alike as it plans its future and to reach out to the neighbouring communities.

Years ago, "everybody was looking for their own little niche," he said. But today, there are no barriers between the Restigouche and Chaleur regions or the Acadian Peninsula, and there might be opportunities to partner on existing or new sectors.