A major hurdle has been cleared on the way to building a wood pellet mill in Enterprise.
The proposed project is close to obtaining 3.2 square-kilometres of land on the north side of the community on which to build.
On Sept. 14, Enterprise hamlet council unanimously passed a motion to approve an agreement-in-principle to sell the land at a price discussed during an in-camera session to Aurora Wood Pellets Ltd., pending legal advice and negotiation of conditions.
“I think this is a huge crossroads for our project,” Brad Mapes, Hay River businessman and the majority owner of Aurora Wood Pellets, told council following the vote. “The communities will be very happy to see this happening, not just Enterprise but the whole region.”
Mayor John Leskiw II told Mapes it could take eight to 10 weeks for the hamlet to go through the legal process before it finally agrees to a contract for the land sale.
“I understand the need to know as soon as possible, but at the same time I want to make sure that all councillors are satisfied with the terms and conditions of the pending contract,” said Leskiw.
The mayor apologized to the mill proponents for the amount of time it is taking the hamlet to decide on the land sale, explaining it has only been two months since the community obtained the land from the GNWT.
The Sept. 14 meeting included a two-hour in-camera session.
Mapes and Joe Handley, a minority owner of Aurora Wood Pellets, were in the closed meeting for part of the time, and emerged with obvious concern about whether council was going to approve the sale.
That concern was shared with a delegation of about a half-dozen people from Fort Resolution, one of the communities which would benefit from harvesting for the mill.
However, once the council finished its in-camera session, Mapes and Handley were called back in, along with the public, and the in-principle agreement was announced.
Following the meeting, Mapes expressed his satisfaction with the arrangement, calling it a milestone and a great opportunity.
“Now we know that the land is there, we can start moving forward,” he said.
Mapes, who has been working on the project for almost five years, said there are still a few things to work out, like harvesting costs, but he described them as small hurdles.
“Now we’re starting to go downhill,” he said. “It was a huge thing for us because realistically I’m trying to tie all my financing together and it just seems like there were a lot of roadblocks. This was a big one that we needed to figure out, how we could get this land purchase moving forward.”
Mapes said, once the land sale is final, surveying will begin and clearing will start over the winter.
The mill is expected to take 14 months to build, meaning it could be operational by 2017.
Handley was also pleased with the outcome of the meeting in Enterprise.
“I just think it’s tremendous news for the whole South Slave,” he said. “It’s 120 to 130 jobs altogether in a region where jobs are hard to come by.”
Handley, a former premier of the NWT, said he could understand the concerns of Enterprise.
“Looking at it from their perspective, they want to make sure that they’re doing it right, and I agree with the approach that they’ve taken,” he said.
Leskiw said some of the details still to be worked out involve fencing, the distance from the road and fire protection.
Handley expects logging for the mill will begin in late 2016 or early 2017.
The mill will produce at least 150,000 cubic metres of pellets each year, but that could increase depending on supply.
A 150,000-cubic-metre production would mean about 45 to 50 jobs at the site and probably 55 truck drivers, plus spin-off jobs.
Harvesting will be controlled by community groups, including in Fort Resolution and Fort Providence.
Mapes owns 97 per cent of the project, while the other three per cent is held by Handley.
Don Harrison, general manager of Timberworks Inc. in Fort Resolution, is pleased with the decision by Enterprise.
“I think we’re one step further,” said Harrison, who was at the Sept. 14 meeting. “This is a real turning point for the forest industry in the South Slave, not only for Fort Resolution, but all the folks in the South Slave region.”