As the clock ticks down to the Dec. 2 deadline for the closure of Tolko Industries’ pulp and paper plant in The Pas, union and political leaders are scrambling to come up with scenarios to keep the facility open.

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This article was published 10/9/2016 (1914 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As the clock ticks down to the Dec. 2 deadline for the closure of Tolko Industries’ pulp and paper plant in The Pas, union and political leaders are scrambling to come up with scenarios to keep the facility open.

Meanwhile, efforts are underway by other resource industry employers in the region to poach some of the 330 workers who will lose their jobs when the plant closes.

In the race to find a solution, there’s plenty of people bearing down to investigate all options.

Bill Henderson, a former longtime employee of Tolko and the predecessor owners of the mill, has been hired by The Pas Community Development Corp. to lead its response team.

Henderson held several key positions at The Pas mill from 1985 to 2001. He recently retired from Manitoba Hydro after 15 years of service.

He was en route to The Pas to have meetings with community officials this weekend.

"We’re focused on trying to see how we can work with the stakeholders to come up with a regional solution for a sustainable forestry industry in the north," he said Friday. "I’m one of the people who feels very strongly about, hey... let’s not sit back and let something happen, let’s try to make something happen."

Jennifer Williams believes one thing that could happen is an employee-share ownership plan (ESOP). Williams works for Toronto-based consultancy ESOP Builders, which has been advocating increased use of such plans in Canada.

Williams said she has cold-called the company and not yet made contact with the union or any of the workers, but thinks if the operations are self-sustaining, an ESOP could work.

Employee-share purchase tax credit legislation was passed in Manitoba in 2014, including tax credits of as much as 45 per cent of the amount employees might invest in a company.

It’s the most generous tax credit of its kind in the country.

"There is an analysis to do there, but we need to do something on this," Williams said. "Employee ownership is an absolute solution in this case."

One union member said there has already been discussions about the possibility of The Pas employees buying the plant.

"We have not pushed it out to too many people yet," said the longtime Tolko worker who asked his name not be used. "We’re trying to figure out liability and a bunch of things."

Earlier this week, The Pas Mayor Jim Scott offered the company a three-year holiday from paying municipal and school taxes as a cost-cutting incentive to try to keep the mill open for three more years while local leaders look for a buyer for the facility.

Scott said the company has neither accepted nor rejected his offer — which he has yet to break down with the Kelsey School Division — but has asked him if the offer would be on the table for any potential buyer.

Tolko officials have not responded to requests for interviews, but several sources have said the Vernon, B.C.,-based company is committed to leaving the market. Since The Pas plant is Tolko’s only paper mill operation, sources say it would likely not be averse to selling the plant, even to a competitor.

For those looking to keep the place open there is a concern about the looming deadline and the importance of maintaining the integrity of the equipment before winter freeze up and, equally important, continuing to service customers.

This week, the message board outside the Kikiwak Inn in The Pas encouraged Tolko workers to go in and learn about employment opportunities at AV Terrace Bay, a pulp mill on Lake Superior, east of Thunder Bay, Ont.

"I was in the hotel at the time. There was not a lot of traffic, but they definitely rented a room," said Paul McKie, national representative at Unifor, the union that represents about 230 workers at Tolko.

"From what I heard, the workers were not that impressed with what was being offered."

McKie said other resource companies have started to court Tolko workers.

On Friday, Amanda Lathlin, NDP MLA for The Pas, said Tolko workers might ask the Pallister government for funds to help them buy the mill. "There’s been talk of that. We need seed money," said Lathlin.

Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen will meet Monday with Scott and other The Pas community leaders to discuss Tolko’s decision to close down its plant.

Lathlin said she does not know what kind of a price tag Tolko is putting on its operation nor how much seed money from the province the workers and Unifor would need to buy it.

Lathlin said she and Niki Ashton, the NDP MP for Churchill—Keewatinook Aski, have been meeting with the union and community leaders from The Pas and Opaskwayak Cree Nation, to try to find a solution to save the local jobs.

"We heard the strong and clear message of their belief in their community: they want to keep it (the mill) open past Dec. 2," Lathlin said. "We have families who are quite paranoid, families who will be split up."

She agreed with Scott’s fear if Tolko shuts down the plant, its assessed value will plummet as a derelict property, and taxes in The Pas will rise.

Eight of Tolko’s 10 local properties are almost without value, while the remaining two make up one-third of the community’s commercial assessment base.

Lathlin said she also wants to know if Tolko asked the Pallister government for help in upgrading its equipment, and if so, whether the Tories took the company seriously.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.canick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Martin Cash

Martin Cash
Reporter

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.