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PROGRESS 2021: Port Alberni’s food hub still growing a year later

The Dock hopes to open a retail store on Alberni’s busy waterfront
A new sign went up at Port Alberni’s food hub in mid-January 2021. (TWITTER PHOTO)

This story is part of our Progress 2021 publication. You can read the special edition in its entirety on our website.

The Dock+ on Port Alberni’s waterfront opened to seafood processors for the first time in July 2020. Now, almost a year later, the facility is still growing.

The facility started out as a seafood processing hub thanks to some provincial funding in 2019. The hub was formed as a partnership between the Port Alberni Port Authority (PAPA) and the City of Port Alberni.

Port Alberni economic development manager Pat Deakin, describes the hub as a “legacy project” that will live for a long time in the community and contribute a “huge amount” to the local economy.

“We wanted it to be an incubator of businesses in the food sector,” he explained. “We also hoped that it would help farmers and those who are in the seafood industry to be able to take their products to the next level. It’s definitely doing both of those things.”

David McCormick, director of public relations and business development with PAPA, said that the province provided funding for various food hubs across B.C. and each of these hubs meets a specific need in the community. In Port Alberni, The Dock+ provides a food processing hub and an opportunity for processors to research and develop innovative, value-added products.

READ: Port Alberni Food Hub opens to seafood processors

“At the onset of the idea, as a business incubator, the ideas were in the hundreds,” said McCormick. “With the amount of interest we’ve had, we could double or triple the size [of the facility] and have it filled.”

The Dock+ opened in the former Port Fish plant on Harbour Road. PAPA’s investment in the hub was nearly $2 million, not including the in-kind donation of the building itself.

“The building was in rough shape,” said Dianna Stubbs, administrative operations manager with PAPA. Stubbs was involved in most of the renovations of the facility. For the most part, it had been dormant since the beginning of 2011 when Port Fish was closed down, and needed “quite a bit of work” to bring it up to current seafood processing standards.

The hub is now home to several “anchor tenants” that have set up their processing facilities in the building. Forest for Dinner is a foraged food company focused on mushrooms and wild edible products from Vancouver Island. Canadian Seafood Processing provides affordable fresh and frozen seafood and shellfish. Nova Harvest focuses on oyster and geoduck.

READ: Port Alberni food hub opens commercial kitchen space

One tenant, Flurer Smokery, specializes in fresh, gourmet hot smoked salmon. Flurer also looks after the common areas in the building, including the cold storage facility that is open for community use, and operates the ice plant at The Dock+ which produces up to 25 metric tonnes of ice per day.

“It’s incredible what the needs are for fish ice,” said McCormick. “Not just in the community, but right out to the coast.”

With cold storage, Stubbs says the service is in “huge demand” in the Alberni Valley.

“Cold storage is something that Port Alberni has been lacking for a very long time,” she said. Although there are cold storage facilities in town, they have not been publicly available. This is something that local farmers use for their perishable products, added Stubbs.

Another tenant of The Dock+ is Cascadia Seaweed. The company has not started operations yet, but it has a lot planned for Port Alberni. In late May, Cascadia Seaweed announced that it had partnered with the city to conduct a pre-feasibility study for a Canadian Centre for Seaweed Research in Port Alberni.

The newest development at The Dock+ is a commercial storefront, operated by Tastes Local. Tastes Local is a Victoria-based company, with the primary objective of distributing locally-made products around Vancouver Island. It started with a subscription box program on a pilot basis and had “pretty good success,” said Tastes Local owner Mark Smith.

Smith describes Tastes Local as a “hyper-local Amazon” that delivers Vancouver Island products around the Island.

“We’re creating a platform where you can go online, order your products, and everything will be 100 percent local,” said Smith.

From this came the idea of “pickup centres” around the Island where people can pick up their boxes. The shop at The Dock+ is the first of these.

“Our vision is to roll into the Alberni Valley and start to build an entire ecosystem of retailers,” said Smith. “We’ve got lots of new ideas, and we think Port Alberni is the perfect place to try out these ideas.”

Tastes Local will also be retailing for some existing tenants at The Dock+ once it opens. Smith anticipates that the storefront will be open later in June.

The last part of The Dock+ is its commercial kitchen, which includes 1,200 square feet of space and speciality equipment separated into four different sections so multiple tenants can use it at the same time.

The commercial kitchen is open for use by community groups. The Port Alberni Shelter Farm, for example, recently used the kitchen for part of its Food Production and Processing program. Some of the tenants of The Dock+ have also been using the kitchen to create value-added products.

“That’s part of the vision,” McCormick explained. “The users working together, learning from each other and using each other’s ingredients. With so many different organizations under one roof, that’s a real opportunity.”

“As we add people, they really start to work together more effectively,” Stubbs added. “As we opened, more and more people were coming to us with their ideas. People are really focused on local-made and sustainability. It’s pretty incredible what we’re learning about where our food comes from.”

The Dock+ also has an upstairs space, which right now features office spaces, a lunch room and a large storage area. But PAPA would like to see some of this space rented out to the right tenants, as well. McCormick suggested the addition of an oyster tasting bar, for example.

“The amount of ideas and opportunities are exponential,” he said. “It’s a challenge to determine what are the next steps.”

“As travel starts to return [after COVID-19], people will be looking for authentic experiences,” said Stubbs. “What’s more authentic than local foods and local artisans?”

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Dianna Stubbs and Dave McCormick of the Port Alberni Port Authority stand outside of The Dock+ at Port Alberni’s waterfront. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
The commercial kitchen inside of The Dock+ is now open for rentals. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)

Elena Rardon

About the Author: Elena Rardon

I have worked with the Alberni Valley News since 2016.
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