Minto, Chipman ready to set aside differences for new municipality, say Grand Lake leaders

The villages of Minto, left, and Chipman have been merged to create the new municipality of Grand Lake, located about 40 kilometres northeast of Fredericton. (Shane Fowler/CBC - image credit)
The villages of Minto, left, and Chipman have been merged to create the new municipality of Grand Lake, located about 40 kilometres northeast of Fredericton. (Shane Fowler/CBC - image credit)

When the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, the welcome signs to Minto and Chipman didn't go anywhere.

Their two respective hockey arenas are still called the Chipman Centennial Arena and the Minto Centennial Arena.

And the village offices in both places will continue to house the staff charged with providing municipal services residents enjoy.

But on paper, the two New Brunswick communities separated by a 20-minute drive will become part of a new municipality known as Grand Lake.

It's a merger that originally elicited opposition from its leaders and residents when it was first announced as part of the province's wider plan for local government reforms.

Now, members of the newly elected council of the municipality of Grand Lake say they're ready to work together as a cohesive community.

"I think it's great," said Kevin Nicklin, who won the mayor's seat by acclamation.

"I think that the two communities, Minto and Chipman, have come together well and we're looking forward to our strong future."

Mike Richardson, a Grand Lake councillor for the ward representing Minto, is also excited about the new municipality.

Aniekan Etuhube/CBC
Aniekan Etuhube/CBC

"I think we've got a bright future here," Richardson said.

"I think we're all in unison here that it's going to be bigger, better. It's going to be a positive thing for our community."

Nicklin and Richardson's comments represent a 180-degree pivot from what leaders of the two communities had to say about the merger when it was announced in fall 2021.

"I was completely blindsided," Keith West, the former mayor of Chipman, said at the time.

Meanwhile, Erica Barnett, Minto's former mayor, "was quite speechless" by the planned merger, and the idea her village would lose its sense of community was "really concerning" to her.

Barnett didn't run for any of the seats up for grabs in the Nov. 28, 2022, election for Grand Lake, and West lost his bid for one of the two councillor positions in what is now the Chipman ward.

Some concerns remain

While there's plenty of optimism among the new Grand Lake councillors, some still have reservations about what the merger could mean in the long run.

Chanda Klassen, elected in the Chipman ward, had served on the Chipman village council, and admits she was opposed to the merger when it was first proposed.

Aniekan Etuhube/CBC
Aniekan Etuhube/CBC

"I felt that both Minto and Chipman were viable communities with a lot going for them, and I felt the physical distance was going to be a barrier," she said.

She's since come around to it but still worries Chipman could lose certain amenities in favour of consolidating them in one location — namely Minto.

For instance, the Centennial Arena built in Chipman in 1967 hosts minor league hockey teams and is home to the Big Dipper canteen, which she manages.

However, she said, she's noticed most of the hockey tournaments get booked at Minto's arena, and she's worried cost-saving measures could lead to Chipman's arena being closed.

"In Chipman we are wanting to focus on not losing ground," Klassen said.

"We have a beautiful arena here, which we want to see continue to be utilized. We want our schools to continue to serve the community, and our health centre, our library.

"So we're not wanting to lose any of our existing services and we recognize that it's going to all come down to, you know how we can afford all this, but I think the sentiment is there to keep all the communities in good shape."

Vernon Bishop has similar concerns.

Aniekan Etuhube/CBC
Aniekan Etuhube/CBC

He's operated a towing company in Chipman for 45 years, and he fears the merger could lead to the village losing some of its services.

"So what's going to happen then with our Service New Brunswick here and our health clinic?" Bishop said.

"It's something that we need in the small area, and you can only imagine that … they'll be asked to lose some of this and we can't accept that. We have to work to try to keep what we have and improve on that."

Details to be worked out

The question of service cuts is difficult to predict, but "some type of change" will be inevitable, said Nicklin.

"Not everything's going to go to Minto and not everything's going to go to Chipman," the Grand Lake mayor said. "It's, you know, it's going to be what's best for the community."

Nicklin said the plan is to keep the village offices for both Minto and Chipman operating.

Aniekan Etuhube/CBC
Aniekan Etuhube/CBC

However, one of the first meetings will be used to decide which of those offices will host the regular council meetings.

Another question mark concerns the municipality's budget.

Nicklin said he hasn't seen how big this will be and worries it won't be large enough to cover road maintenance and other services the municipality will have to provide to areas that were formerly local service districts.

"If you go down to the lake, for example, you know, the roads are not necessarily in great shape. It's not well lit, there's no tourism, things like that, and they'll be looking for us to help out in that avenue."

Nicklin also recognizes that Minto and Chipman have their own distinct identities — one tied to a coal-mining industry of a bygone era, and the other tied to a booming forestry industry.

But, he said, now's the time for everyone to do what's best for the whole community.

"We just have to be open enough to do what's best for our community, not for any one particular group," Nicklin said.

"So you know, we'll take everybody's issues one at a time, and we'll deal with them the best we can."