Duke Point struggling to chart industrial future

NANAIMO – Competitive tax rate draw to companies looking to set up shop on South Coast.

Nanaimo wants to grow its industrial tax base while residents wrestle over what industries they want on their doorstep.

Duke Point was conceived in the 1970s by the provincial government that recognized the day would come when the B.C. south coast would run out of industrial land and need more port facilities and space for industry.

The industrial port was dynamited out of the bed rock and levelled in the early 1980s and after 30 years of economic and industrial ebb and flow, Duke Point could be on the cusp of serious development as companies, attracted by competitively priced land and industrial tax rates, eye up elbow room.

“One of the things we have to consider is in the last seven years we’ve reduced our heavy industrial tax rate to, in my opinion, one of the most favourable in British Columbia,” said Bill McKay, Nanaimo city councillor.

Competitive housing prices, Island lifestyle, cheap hydro-electric power and close proximity to areas where companies can test technology prototypes are other reasons to move to Duke Point, said Sasha Angus, Nanaimo Economic Development Corporation CEO, who is seeing rising interest in the industrial park.

In the 21st century, the site could become home to industries never thought of 40 years ago, but there’s strong local opposition to any industry with a heavy environmental footprint. Chromium and power generation plants have been shown the door in the past.

Pulp and saw mills, bio-waste processing, various manufacturing processes and the vehicles and services supporting them all have an impacts people want kept in check.

A recent rezoning application for an industrial medical marijuana farm by U.S.-based Privateer Holdings and the potential to build an incinerator to burn and generate electricity from hundreds of thousands of tonnes of garbage, barged yearly from the mainland, have stirred consternation and even sparked city council to look at the potentially “downzoning”  Duke Point to bar some non-traditional industries from moving in. “I think [Privateer Holdings] are an interesting illustration of an industrial business that doesn’t meet our old definitions of what is industrial,” Angus said.

Angus isn’t the only one who figures going green is good.

Even Duke Point stalwarts – like the Harmac pulp mill that have been there since the 1950s, which just completed a $45 million co-generation plant – are building the foundations of an “eco-industrial” future where new companies feed from heat and power from existing plants like Harmac’s.

“Which would allow other companies in the region to create, not so much an industrial park, but more of an eco-industrial park of companies that develop and manufacture environmental technologies,” Angus said.

Nanaimo is also within a couple hours’ travel distance of where photovoltaic, tidal and wind power manufacturers can test their technologies in real-world conditions.

More companies mean greater demand for things like overnight courier service. Theoretically, Privateer Holdings would need speedy delivery for marijuana prescriptions that could be flown out of Nanaimo Airport, increasing traffic there and an added benefit for existing high-tech companies like Inuktun, which often must send parts and products to customers world-wide in a hurry. “Duke Point is a huge asset for us,” Angus said.

The trick is to attract the right industries under existing zoning categories.

Kim Smythe, Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce CEO, said Nanaimo needs to be careful about potentially “down-zoning” Duke Point to nix proposals like the trash incinerator.

“I thought it was a real knee-jerk reaction to go, say, oh my gosh let’s down-zone this so they can’t use it,” Smythe said. “If they can’t use it that means a lot of people can’t use it and then we’re back to slowing down the fulfilment of Duke Point as a heavy industrial park.”

But Duke Point isn’t perfect. McKay pointed out there never has been a rail spur built to the park, which relies solely on truck and ship transport. In fact the only rail link to the Lower Mainland for all of Vancouver Island terminates in downtown Nanaimo.

McKay said he’d like to see transportation infrastructure, especially freight and commuter rail linked between downtown, Duke Point and the rest of the Island.