The City of Port Alberni has formally taken ownership of the Somass Sawmill property.
Fencing and security signs have gone up around the property after the city took over in mid-February.
The city paid $5.3 million to Western Forest Products in August 2021 for approximately 43 acres of land where the former Somass Sawmill was located. The city served Western with a notice of expropriation in late June 2021 after the land sat unused for five years following curtailment at the waterfront mill.
Western was given several months to remove whatever pieces of the former sawmill that the company found useful.
In the weeks leading to the handover, Western Forest Products removed the old steel millworks building. At 200 metres long, it once stood beside the dry shed that was dismantled in 2013.
David Hooper, a member of the Western Vancouver Island Industrial Heritage Society, watched the building come down in stages. He said workers stripped the siding and roofing sheets, rolled up the insulation into giant rolls, then unbolted and removed the main steel components. The process took a few weeks between December and the end of January.
The city has allocated $200,000 in its proposed 2022 budget to pay for potential costs for the Connect the Quays pathway, which would cross the Somass Sawmill site. This budget would likely include costs such as security for the site, said Scott Smith, acting CAO for the City of Port Alberni.
Smith is working on next steps for the property. He is drafting a request for proposals for an environmental assessment firm to do a more in-depth study on the Somass lands. The city can apply for Green Municipal Fund money to study brownfield sites, and the city is eligible for this grant funding, he said.
City staff will work with council on “strategic options” for the site. “Not determining what the uses are, but what options council might consider,” Smith said.
He added that the city would like to move forward with options for the Somass site within the next six months. “When we first acquired the site there was a high-level preliminary vision. Nothing absolutely set in stone.”
Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions called the waterfront land “the most important property within the City of Port Alberni.” It has been controversial in that the city intends to keep a portion of the waterfront to build a walkway that will connect Victoria Quay to Harbour Quay. Many residents have vocally opposed the walkway, calling it a waste of money.
Minions reiterated in a recent interview with Douglas Magazine that the city has no desire to court another heavy industry tenant for the site. She said the original vision for the site is a mix of residential and commercial development, possibly with light industrial use.
Whether the city decides to develop the property itself or sell to developers will be part of the next steps, Smith said.
Whatever they decide, there is interest in the property from all over. Smith said he has received calls and emails from interested parties. “There has been some interest from the development industry, yes,” he said.
“We want to work with council on options to move forward on the future of the site.”