If McLean Mill National Historic Site’s steam sawmill was busier, the city wouldn’t have to subsidize it so much, says Coun. Jack McLeman.
McLeman is calling on Vancouver Island-based logging companies to donate more logs to the mill.
Councillors passed a motion at the Feb. 27 budget meeting seeking donations of logs to boost lumber sales at the mill.
According to McLeman, Western Forest Products donated some logs in 2012 and the results were good for the mill.
“We got wood to use on the site. It helped repair the fish ladder. And we got to sell some of it, so I’d say this worked well for the mill,” McLeman said.
The plan has a downside, he admitted. For starters, the mill is old and it can’t run fast. It can only run for three hours a day without a heavier maintenance schedule. And the wood would have to be sold in a niche market, he said.
“We’re not competing with APD, Somass Mill, etc.”
Western Forest Products isn’t the only group who have donated logs; others such as Probyn Logging and outside private groups have in the past as well.
McLeman wants to solicit donations from other groups, asking the city to issue a tax receipt in return.
The mill’s total budget for this year is $500,000. Mill manager Neil Malbon said the tourism-based operation is projected to generate $250,000 to $255,000 in revenue this year, and officials have asked for a $249,000 subsidy.
“Just over 50 per cent out of what we spend in our budget we generate ourselves,” Malbon said.
According to McLeman, the mill sold $20,000 of lumber last year. “If other outfits donated to us and we could get that up by two to three times then we’d need less subsidy from the city,” he said.
The goal is to cut back the subsidy to zero; but in order to do that the mill must become economically self-sufficient, McLeman said.
“I think the business is there.”
The mill has purchased some timber, including yellow cedar from Western Forest Products.
There are two or three employees who run the mill regularly. They have local customers for lumber: their custom-cut wood is especially in demand from people who are rebuilding docks or having to replace support timbers.
Most of the orders are cut during summer tourist demonstrations, but there is room to increase production a little, McLeman said.
The mill received a national historic site designation from Parks Canada more than a decade ago. As a result of the designation, the city and federal government signed a 42-year agreement involving the mill, city manager Ken Watson said.
The agreement called for the feds to contribute $2 million with matching provincial funds for capital improvement to the mill.
The agreement makes no mention about the mill’s operation or the steam train, Watson said.
“It (the mill) shouldn’t be allowed to fall into a state of disrepair but it doesn’t have to be operated on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
The mill is an integral part of the community and worth the investment, Alberni Valley Museum director Jean McIntosh said.
“It’s a historical mark and a commemorative location. It’s a representation of a mill of a certain era in our heritage,” McIntosh said.
The mill is a social, technological and commercial example of the way people lived in the Valley then and that’s important, she said. “It’s part of the community’s original fabric and it still resides at the site.”
Forestry is the foundation the city was built on, she added. “It’s the original essence of economic development in the community.”
The Anderson mill that was built in 1860 at the foot of what is now Argyle Street was the first sawmill built in B.C. The London, England-based company brought in workers and supplies for the mill, and this spawned the beginning of a settlement that eventually grew out around it to become Port Alberni.
“That is something to honour and is hugely important,” McIntosh said.
R.B. McLean built McLean Mill and operated it with his three sons between 1926-65. Some of the original buildings are still standing.
The mill is a cultural investment in the Valley, McIntosh said.
It showcases who we are. Gives a glimpse at the Valley’s past and present. And promotes the Valley’s uniqueness as a community, she said.
“It also gives our children a sense of where it is they come from and what their roots are,” McIntosh said.
“That’s what we invest in when we invest in culture.”
— With files from Susan Quinn