'Nothing stays the same': Minto man hopeful, terrified as fibreglass plant closes

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'Nothing stays the same': Minto man hopeful, terrified as fibreglass plant closes

Reggie Barton and his eight officemates were called into a conference room on Jan. 30. They were expecting another layoff notice for RPS Composites, the last major employer in the Village of Minto.

What they and more than 30 other people got instead were termination notices. The plant was closing March 13.

"We were shocked, we were utterly speechless," said Barton, the quality assurance inspector. "I'm talking four minutes of probably the most awkward silence I've ever heard in my life.

"We felt like you lost a family member, like you get the phone call that someone in the family has suddenly passed away. It was like a death, it was so shocking to all of us."

- 'We were speechless:' fibreglass plant in Minto to close in March 

Barton has worked at RPS Composites, formerly known as Maritime Fibreglass, on and off for 22 years. These days, the 47-year-old spends his free time on his duties as a village councillor.

As closing day neared, Barton was getting himself ready for more than just losing his job. He has spent his entire life in Minto and does not want to leave, but he knows he might have to.

"I'm trying to stay as positive as possible in the fact that I believe that when one door closes, it gives another one the opportunity to open … I don't know what it's going to be, but hopefully it's something that will keep me in Minto.

"Hopefully it's something I can look back on in 20 years and say, 'That was the best thing that ever happened, that plant closing.' … Or maybe we'll win the lottery and it'll all be settled."

'A spike in the coffin'

RPS is the third major closure for the Minto-Grand Lake area in the last seven years.

With the closure of NB Coal in 2009, the village with coal-mining roots lost its last mining jobs, and its economy lost millions of dollars. Nearly 100 jobs were axed.

Less than three months later, NB Power pulled the plug on the coal-fired generating station on Grand Lake, which sat empty and unused for two years until it was demolished in 2012.

"You take two or $3 million out of the economy that's already a small market, that's a pretty big spike in the coffin of a community this size," Barton said.

Barton's concerns for rural New Brunswick go beyond Minto. Down the road in Chipman sits Grand Lake Timber, a sawmill owned by J.D. irving, Limited. With 90 per cent of its product going across the border, and the U.S. considering imposing duties, Barton said nothing is safe.

"Nothing stays the same and I believe that … I'm learning more and more every day that anything can happen in big industry."

'It's going to be hard'

Barton said that with paycheques stopping and smaller local businesses hurting, people are leaving the area to find work. The population has dropped by half over the last 20 years.

He said he and his wife, Bonnie, have been forced to talk about leaving, going back to school and other possible lifestyle changes over the last month. These are conversations they never expected to have.

"So, I'm thinking, 'Do I go get re-educated? Do I go back to school at 47-years-old?' Which is just as scary as being out of work at 47-years-old, if not a little scarier."

When RPS closes, it will be the first time the plant has been deserted in 47 years. Barton said one part of him is excited for new beginnings, but terrified of the uncertainty.

And when he thinks about walking out those doors for the last time, tears form in his eyes. His body freezes and he's silent. He takes a deep breath.

"It's going to be hard to drive by that shop and see nothing going on," he said. "We're talking about the last day — the eight of us [office] staff going out and having one last lunch together, which is going to be tough."