New hope for a resilient B.C. village

With Canfor's sawmill reopening in Radium Hot Springs, residents are celebrating new hope and perseverance through tough times

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Dee Conklin had just become the mayor of the Village of Radium Hot Springs when, in April of 2009, the town was hit with crushing news: Canfor's sawmill was closing indefinitely. The impact this had on the community and its workers and families was beyond devastating. Now, the mood of the town has definitely changed because of a $38.5-million investment by Canfor—an investment that has meant a completely upgraded sawmill and a brand new planer mill are operating in their community.

"What small town doesn't just do a happy dance when (a company is) investing $38.5 million in your community," said Conklin. "I mean, they are here to stay and that just bodes exceptionally well for the whole community. The people we talked to in the restaurants and coffee shops were so buoyed . . . they couldn't wait to get their applications back in again."

There were 123 employees at the sawmill that were eligible for recall to their positions when the mill shut down in 2009. (It was poor market conditions—i.e. very low market prices for lumber—combined with outdated technology at the mill that drove the indefinite closure of the mill in 2009.) Of those people, 86 have returned, or about 70 per cent. When the mill is at full production—by 2013—over 144 people will be employed at the facility.

Conklin said that in 2009, Canfor called it an indefinite closure, not a complete closure, which would have been worse for the community. She said "indefinite" left the door open for possibility. So a lot of workers stayed around Radium Hot Springs while their Employment Insurance benefits were being eaten up—but after 52 or 54 weeks, they had to start looking elsewhere for employment. Some of them went back to school to get some retraining—which was fantastic for the local college—but others had to make some heartbreaking decisions.

"Some of them made some fairly difficult family decisions, especially the groups that were both husband and wife who worked at the mill—and we did have a number of those families," said Conklin. "So they had to move out of town. Others also had to make some really tough decisions where the husband and/or wife—but in most cases the husband—chose to go work down at the mines in Elkford or Sparwood, B.C., or up at Fort McMurray (Alberta). But they were doing 21 days on, 10 days off, which is extremely hard on families."

So how did the small community of 800 permanent residents survive? Conklin said it was tourism.

"We are one of the lucky ones," she said. "There are 14 towns, cities and villages in B.C. that are designated resort municipalities, so basically that means they have more motel beds than they may have permanent residents—and we are one of those. So we focused a lot more on what the government was helping us support, which was tourism."

Conklin said they hired a marketing co-ordinator and an events co-ordinator and started promoting Radium Hot Springs as a really fun place to come to. The village's proximity to Kootenay National Park and the actual hot springs meant a great deal as well.

"We were able to focus a lot of our energies there, which gave us an alternative," said Conklin, "and not every town has that ability. So we made it through."

The village started focusing on initiatives like music events and markets on main street on the weekends. It also started taking advantage of the resort municipality initiative funding and fixed up its children's park and created an outdoor fitness park—among other things—in order to enhance the visitor's experience when they come to Radium Hot Springs.

"During the slow time, we branded ourselves," said Conklin. "We hired Twist Marketing out of Calgary to come up and help us figure out who we are and what we should look like. It was super exciting."

Radium Hot Springs has been celebrating its anniversary every New Year's Eve with fireworks and other great family activities ever since it was incorporated in December of 1990. This year, though, the community is having a huge launch of its brand to celebrate as well.

So now with the reopening of the mill, Conklin said, Radium Hot Springs has two major contributors to its economy; it has the ability to reap the benefits of both tourism and the incredible economic gift that is the Canfor Radium sawmill.

"We were able survive on tourism; Radium is very lucky," said Conklin. "But we are a mill town and we are very, very happy they're back."

Karen Kornelsen

Karen Kornelsen, a writer for Kootenay Business Magazine, has a degree in jounalism. She enjoys finding and reporting the news from the business community. View all of Karen Kornelsen’s articles

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