A regional food processing hub will open on Port Alberni’s industrial waterfront in July with five tenants and thousands of square feet of possibility.
“It’s going to put Port Alberni in the forefront,” Port Alberni Port Authority president and CEO Zoran Knezevic said. The project is a joint effort between the port authority and City of Port Alberni.
The former Port Fish processing plant is undergoing renovations and will house five tenants. Anchor tenant Flurer Smokery Ltd. own a custom processing and smoking company and are moving their processing facility from Campbell River to Port Alberni, Knezevic said. Other tenants will include Cascadia Seaweed Corporation from Victoria, two oyster processors (Effingham Oyster and Nova Harvest, from eastern Canada) and Forest For Dinner of Qualicum Beach and Parksville, which processes foraged food.
“So far we are calling it Sea to Forest Food Hub; that’s its working name. We will be going through a branding exercise to find the right name for it.”
The facility will have a commercial kitchen set up by the fall that small businesses non-profit organizations will be able to use to process food for commercial consumption or even teach cooking courses. The kitchen will be provincially certified and all equipment will be insured, Knezevic said. “We’ll use it as a business incubator for the community.”
David McCormick, director of public relations and business development for PAPA, said he has fielded numerous calls from organizations eager to use the commercial kitchen.
“The food hub is a legacy project,” says Pat Deakin, economic development manager for the City of Port Alberni. Deakin has worked with port authority officials to get the project off the ground.
“It will allow farmers, both terrestrial and aquatic-based to be able to grow their operations.”
The project has short- to long-term goals as well, which will enable it to grow as the need grows.
“In a year we see that it will be fully up to speed, and that individuals who are looking for an opportunity to certify their product through the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and HACCP (a food safety management system) would be able to do that,” he said.
“In five years’ time I see it as a keystone in other seafood and seaweed ventures. The food hub is the start.”
Port Fish was best known for processing hake and groundfish, but the plant closed back in 2011 and the building has not been used since then. Deakin, Knezevic and McCormick see it as a start for the region—a seafood “hub”.
“Years ago, Dave McCormick and I developed an idea for a centre of seafood excellence and we started moving that forward. We had the province on board, we were looking for a private sector partner, and that never materialized. We put the concept on the backburner.”
Private sector partners have since approached Deakin and PAPA, and the hub is targeted to open in July 2020, a year after the City of Port Alberni began pitching the idea of a regional food innovation and processing hub to potential funders.
The location of the food hub begs for expansion: McCormick and Knezevic envision a smaller version of Steveston, a trendy suburb of Richmond, B.C. Steveston began as a fishing village and has found a winning mix of marine industry, retail and residential areas. The food hub is right next to Tyee Landing, where the annual Port Alberni Salmon Fest has moved (it is cancelled due to COVID-19 this year), and the Somass Sawmill lands—which aside from the kilns have been idle since 2018—are on the other side of the Landing’s chainlink fence.
McCormick said while Tyee Landing and PAPA’s “mini-Steveston vision is long term, they are confident the food hub will be a springboard for attracting more interest to the area.
“We see a lot of potential for the Somass land,” Knezevic added. “If there is no mill a mix of residential and commercial use for that land will be a great fit.”
In March the B.C. Economic Development Association (BCEDA) honoured Deakin and the City of Port Alberni with the Community Project Award for the food hub at the BCEDA’s 2020 summit banquet. The award “recognizes an organization that has implemented various economic development initiatives that provide economic benefits to a community or region.”
Dale Wheeldon, president and CEO of the BCEDA, called all the 2020 winners “great examples of the partnerships required for success.” This year’s theme was Energizing Economic Development Through Collaboration, and Wheeldon said all the nominated projects were good examples of partnerships required for success.
The award advances Port Alberni’s reputation provincially as an innovative place to do business, Deakin said.
“It’s recognition by our peers that this is a project that has really shown the rest of the province how to partner, what it means to bring the Indigenous community in to work with us and what it means to have some strong private-sector partners along with public-sector work at financing the project.
“It’s recognition not only from the peer group but from the provincial financial agencies that vetted the applications.”