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Port Alberni has partner in developing waterfront’s keystone Somass lands

Matthews West Developments will work with city on former Somass Sawmill site purchased in 2021
An aerial photo of the former Somass Sawmill lands in Port Alberni. (COURTESY CITY OF PORT ALBERNI)

The City of Port Alberni has announced that Matthews West Developments Ltd. has been selected as the development partner for the Somass Lands.

With this partnership, the city expects to transform the former site of the Somass Division sawmill into a mixed-use site that provides public access to the waterfront, generating “a vibrant waterfront community for residents and visitors to enjoy.”

The announcement on Dec. 12, 2023 came after a rigorous Request for Expressions of Interest process that was launched in Sept. 2022. The city received 16 responses from organizations and developers. This led to a Request for Qualifications process, and the city says that Matthews West Developments Ltd. “stood out” as an ideal partner for redevelopment of the 43-acre waterfront property.

Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions said that the city has been especially impressed by the Matthews West waterfront development project in Squamish. The project includes a 10-acre park, a waterfront walkway and a “good mix” of residential, commercial and light industrial spaces, which is what the city eventually wants to see on the Somass Lands.

“We felt like it was a really great parallel,” said Minions. “It gave them a clear history and proven track record with former mill sites and industrial land. We’re always talking about how Port Alberni is very similar to where Squamish was five to 10 years ago. So we felt like they had really great experience developing a quality project in a community similar to ours.”

Minions said the way Matthews West has worked with the Squamish Nation throughout this process also stood out to the city.

“That’s something from the start that we said we wanted to see here,” she said. “They really demonstrated a proven ability to work with First Nations first, to the benefit of a community.”

The city’s vision for the Somass Lands has not changed much since they first purchased the site from Western Forest Products, back in 2021, at a cost of $5.3 million. Minions said at the time the city had had enough of seeing 43 acres of prime waterfront property sit idle for five years, after Western indefinitely curtailed forestry operations at the mill.

READ MORE: City of Port Alberni buys Somass Sawmill lands for $5.3 million

READ MORE: Somass demolition nearly complete, says City of Port Alberni

The city has since been demolishing what is left of the mill and remediating the site, preparing to redevelop the Somass Lands into a multi-use site with a mix of housing, park and open space, local small businesses and an enhanced natural environment. The primary focus, said Minions, has always been about making the waterfront publicly accessible to the people of the community.

In a release from the city, John Matthews, president of Matthews West, said the company is “honoured” to partner with the city to further their vision.

“We see tremendous opportunity for growth in Port Alberni due to its attractiveness as a recreational centre that offers natural beauty, lifestyle and a strong sense of community,” he said. “We look forward to the upcoming work on the site, engaging with the community, and working hand-in-hand with the Tseshaht and the Hupacasath First Nations on this exceptional development opportunity.”

While the city doesn’t have a firm timeline in place for the redevelopment of the Somass Lands yet, they will be negotiating the final details of the development agreement while continuing to work on remediation and demolition of the site. The next steps will be master planning, which Minions says will involve “a lot” of community engagement and input.

The city will not be releasing the financial details of the partnership until the development agreement is complete, but Minions says she expects the city will be able to fully recover its investment.

“From the start of this project I’ve been saying publicly that I expect the city to recoup our costs for the purchase, as well as other costs we’ve had along the way for the site, and that remains my expectation,” said Minions.

Elena Rardon

About the Author: Elena Rardon

I have worked with the Alberni Valley News since 2016.
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