In the waning shadow of Hebron: Sunnyside prepares for 'shock' after oil platform departs

1 / 4
In the waning shadow of Hebron: Sunnyside prepares for 'shock' after oil platform departs

The small Trinity Bay town of Sunnyside has a bundle of cash in the bank and has thrived in the shadow of Hebron, but it now faces an uncertain future as the massive construction project comes to an end, taking with it thousands of high-wage construction jobs.

"We're gonna miss the traffic and miss the activity. I think it's going to be a real shocker," said Mayor Robert Snook.

From his living room window, Snook has watched for a half-dozen years as the $14-billion Hebron production platform slowly took shape in Bull Arm.

The platform is nearly complete, and tow-out to the Grand Banks is beginning in late April, with first-oil planned for later this year.

Money in the bank

Unlike earlier projects at the fabrication site, Hebron brought a cash windfall and development boom to Sunnyside. 

"Hibernia did nothing for us," Snook said of Newfoundland and Labrador's first offshore oil project, much of which was constructed at Bull Arm in the 1990s.

The lead partner on Hebron, ExxonMobil Canada, pays the town a yearly grant of $225,000 in lieu of taxes, and 60 new dwellings were built to accommodate the influx of workers, bringing in thousands more in municipal taxes.

The town has tucked that grant away into a special legacy fund that now exceeds $1 million, said Snook, and the plan is to invest it into a yet-to-be determined community project.

The tax windfall, meanwhile, helped swell the town's annual operating budget to a half-million-dollars annually, an increase of roughly 20 per cent.

Much of that was invested into new water and sewer infrastructure, and a new war memorial.

'Back to bare bones'

But ExxonMobil will cut its last cheque to Sunnyside next year, and unless another major project can bring much-needed activity to Bull Arm, the boom times are about to come to a sudden halt.

"We've done very well but now we're going to be back to bare bones again after this year," Snook said.

One big question is what will become of the properties in Sunnyside that accommodate temporary residents, most of which work on the Hebron project.

According to the 2016 census, there are just under 300 dwellings in Sunnyside, but only two-thirds of them are occupied by permanent residents.

Other towns in the region face a similar challenge.

"It's a bit worrisome," said Snook. "These 110 dwellings. What will happen to them? Are they going to be vacant?"

Faced with the prospect of a weak rental market, Snook said property owners are already approaching the town, looking for a break on taxes.

He said that won't happen.

"As long as you own property you'll pay the water and sewer fees, and property tax as well," he said.

Living in hope

Despite the uncertainty, Snook remains hopeful.

Bull Arm is Atlantic Canada's largest industrial fabrication site, and owner Nalcor Energy is now marketing the property to potential new users.

There's potential for more oil fields to be developed in Newfoundland's offshore, and Snook believes Bull Arm will play a role.

And he has a message for companies that might set up shop in Bull Arm. Expect to pay more than the grant paid by ExxonMobil.

"We could have done better," he said.