The future of the district's forests continues to be a top priority for the town.
Fort Frances town council urged the province to put a hold on the development of a new Enhanced Sustainable Forest Licence (ESFL) so it can provide greater benefit to municipalities yesterday during the Association of Municipalities Ontario (AMO) conference in Ottawa.
Mayor June Caul and the town's representatives met with local MPP Greg Rickford and Minister John Yakabuski to discuss how the new ESFL can be shaped to provide greater certainty to current wood harvesters in the region, such as Manitou Lumber and Norbord.
“We want to ensure that those places are secure in their wood supply and we don't want to be losing ours, we want to get ours back . . . so if a business wants to start up wood production of some sort in the future, at least we'll still have the wood that will come to Fort Frances,” Mayor Caul explained.
“They were very understanding to what we were asking, and Minister Rickford and Minister Yakabuski will be meeting on Monday to discuss this,” she added.
Following the meeting next Monday, the town will know more details about the province's plans and Mayor Caul is hopeful that a hold will ultimately be placed on the progression of the ESFL.
She said if the new ESFL isn't stopped and drafted in a way that prevents Resolute Forest Products from again controlling the district's wood, there's won't be a bright future for the local wood industry.
“If we can't get a change in the way it is looking right now, how will we ever be able to start up another business?,” Mayor Caul reasoned.
Meanwhile, Minister Rickford met with Resolute Forest Products last Wednesday and said they showed a willingness to participate in moving towards a more community-driven ownership model of the Crossroute Forest.
In regards to the Fort Frances mill being restarted, Mayor Caul said there isn't much the province can do to block the restrictive covenant agreement attached to the recent sale of the mill, between Resolute and Riversedge Developments.
“Really, that's a whole business-to-business thing," she explained. "That's not anything to do with what the province is really able to do . . . it doesn't enter into play as far as the politics of it go.”
But with regards to a restrictive covenant preventing a new purchaser from speaking with the province to change the current allocation of wood fibre, Rickford said it won't be an issue.
“Those are not possessory rights exclusive to Resolute or Riversedge,” he explained.
However, sections of the agreement that say Riversedge must redevelop the site for purposes other than a pulp and paper mill can't be blocked by the province.
Sean Twomey, CEO of Rainy River Packaging, the company which tried purchasing the mill in March, questioned whether the document is legally enforceable.
“I am uncertain to the legal validity of that document and I know that the council in Fort Frances has urged the Competition Bureau to consider that document,” Twomey noted.
Mayor Caul said the town is currently working with its lawyers and seeking legal advice to determine the best path moving forward with respect to the restrictive covenants.
Meanwhile, Twomey told the Times he remains committed to restarting the Fort Frances mill which he says can be made possible with the right investments.
“Rainy River Packaging believes the Fort Frances is technically capable of being restarted, in the same way that mills in Wickliffe, Kentucky and Old Town, Maine have recently been restarted after several years of closure,” he remarked.
While Twomey can't comment on his communications with Riversedge Developments, he said Rainy River Packaging is working on a proposal that benefits all parties involved.
“We're open to considering the interests of various stakeholders and building the proposal which ensures a profitable operation over the long-term,” he explained.
“We're incredibly flexible as long as we can focus on results using the resources of northern Ontario to invest in building a profitable future for both the company and potential future employees.”
In regards to Riversedge Developments interest in turning the shuttered mill into a cannabis growing operation, Twomey said he ultimately doesn't see it as a solution that is viable.
Coun. Douglas Judson told the Times he's seen no indication that a cannabis growing operation is feasible or coming to fruition at the mill site.
“There's no evidence that's available to us at least, that any steps have been taken to license or permit such a business," he remarked. "What we do know is producing pulp and paper products is viable in this facility and there's industry interests in doing that.”
Twomey said he's optimistic about the mill's future and will continue to work towards its restart.
“We think that Fort Frances has a future built on the strength of its northern fibre,” he noted.
"The black spruce and jack pine that grow throughout northern Ontario are among the strongest fibres in the world and that's why we're interested in developing a proposal that makes sense.
“We're specifically interest in the Fort Frances mill because there are capable employees who have taken early retirements and are interested in reopening the mill,” Twomey continued.
"We believe the strength of the knowledge base in Fort Frances is a specific advantage.
“When you combine that with the strength of the fibre we think there are good business opportunities that are growing,” he added.