BIDCo owner Brian Fehr and Premier John Horgan in a press conference Tuesday, June 12th in Canal Flats at the site of the old Canfor mill, which was shut down in 2015 and is now being reinvigorated with a plan for a technology centre. Photo by Dauna Ditson

Former B.C. mill town eyed by province for new high-tech data hub

Canal Flats mill to be transformed into tech centre

The old Canal Flats mill is changing eras and sawing ahead into the age of technology.

A reception area at the mill site was packed with a standing-room-only crowd on Tuesday, June 12th as the co-founders of the Columbia Lake Technology Centre – a business so new it doesn’t yet have a website – revealed their plans to turn the location into a high-tech data hub and training centre.

“We’re pulling from the past to the future,” centre co-founder Brian Fry said. He envisions seeing data centres, greenhouses to take advantage of the heat produced by the centres, training facilities, technical training programs and more.

An old mill in the rural interior might not seem like the ideal location for a cutting-edge venture, but Fry said the site has everything they need: lots of space (1,000 acres), lots of power and a fiber optic network that means the centre will be “as connected as anywhere in the world.”

Being in a rural area away from other technology centres is irrelevant to the business side of things, he said, adding that “we’re milliseconds from anywhere else in the world.”

The location also comes with the advantages of being near “the glorious mountains,” and having access to affordable housing and land to develop, he said.

The mill shut down in 2015. Last year Mr. Fry’s co-founder, Brian Fehr, purchased the land.

Mr. Fehr chairs BID Group, a multinational corporation. His work has taken him all over rural BC and around the United States with high-tech equipment that makes manufacturing more efficient.

“For the past 40 years I’ve been in the business of building and improving saw mills,” Mr. Fehr said. “We want to give back by creating value and opportunity for the people in rural B.C.”

Premier John Horgan, who used to be a mill worker himself, stopped in Canal Flats to cheer on the initiative.

“We all know, nobody more so than the people in Canal Flats, that there’s a transition happening in our forest economy,” he said. “Technology, for better or worse, is reducing our ability to have people working in mills.”

The forestry industry continues to thrive, he said, but technology is displacing workers.

It’s fitting then, that the technology industry is rising up to fill the gap it had a hand in creating in rural areas like Canal Flats.

Over 20 people are already employed at the Columbia Lake Technology Centre site. By the end of the year, Mr. Fehr expects to have 100 people working on location – just as many as had been employed at the mill.

“The Columbia Lake Technology Centre is a classic example of how you can take industrial space, you can take access to energy – which the Kootenay has in abundance – and create economic opportunity” said Premier Horgan.

“What we’re experiencing right here, taking what was a crisis in 2015, and turning it into an extraordinary opportunity just three years later – because of the work of the community, because of the Trust, because of investors that had a vision – it’s just inspiring,” he said.

Mr. Fehr has been impressed by how “welcoming and enthusiastic” everyone has been.

You could even say the community offered its support on a platter. When Base Camp Coffee Shop ran out of serving platters to provide trays of treats for the event, the people of Canal Flats opened their cupboards and brought their platters over.

“When the mill closed, we were devastated,” Canal Flats Mayor Ute Juras said, admitting that the shutdown brought the community to tears.

She is ready for the opportunities the Columbia Lake Technology Centre envisions.

“I’m super excited about this new venture and adventure for this tiny little town,” she said.

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