Atlantic Canada’s next region to watch is rich with resources, infrastructure, and skilled labour. Having geography on its side doesn’t hurt, either
It could be Newfoundland’s best-kept secret: a remarkably tight concentration of resource wealth and industrial development, clustered together around calm, ice-free waters, deep harbours, effective sea and land transportation networks, and a host of communities that are readily declaring themselves open for business.
The area, which stretches from Bonavista to Grand Bank — taking in Placentia Bay, Trinity Bay, Long Harbour, and a host of distinct towns and ports along the way — forms a “Golden Triangle” of activity and opportunity. Oil and gas, mining, fishing, aquaculture, fabrication, and manufacturing industries are successfully diversifying and driving the local economy; a multi-faceted service sector and skilled work force are expanding in step.
It’s close enough to the population and political base of St. John’s for convenience, but far enough away to have its own identity, and to still offer considerable swaths of space ripe for development.
The busyness is injecting a palpable sense of pride and confidence in the region: more small businesses are setting up, the already strong tourism industry is expanding in sophistication, options, and longer operating seasons. As historic homes and merchant premises are being restored and renovated (Bonavista Creative’s work in that town is a recent example), new business parks are opening in several other places, including Grand Bank and Arnold’s Cove. Ports, in particular that of Argentia, are rebranding themselves in a global context and making strategic infrastructure investments to meet the future head-on.
Some of the area’s biggest players are familiar names: Bull Arm fabrication site first proved its worth in the 1990s during the construction of the Hibernia drilling platform. Since 2011, the site — perfectly positioned at the head of the deep, calm Bull Arm at the base of Trinity Bay — has been bustling with construction related to the $14-billion Hebron offshore oil project; first oil is projected for 2017. Vale Ltd.’s nickel processing plant at Long Harbour is working steadily, employing roughly 700 people and aiming for full production of 50,000 tonnes of nickel per year. The North Atlantic oil refinery at Come by Chance, and Newfoundland Transshipment Ltd.’s facility at Whiffen Head have both had busy years, even in the face of a downturn in oil prices.
In fact — speaking of triangles — the Town of Arnold’s Cove is at the geographic centre of a very productive one involving three of those heavy-hitting operations. The town is perched on the isthmus to the Avalon Peninsula at the head of the deep-water, ice-free Placentia Bay. To the east lies Bull Arm; to the west is Whiffen Head; to the north is Come by Chance.
Not only are all of these major pieces of infrastructure within a 5-kilometre radius of the town, but they represent the breadth of the province’s oil and gas industry in terms of upstream, midstream, and downstream components. The Whiffen Head facility has handled over 2.25 billion barrels of crude (as of the end of 2014) since its start of operations in 1998; some 130,000 barrels of crude are refined at Come by Chance each day, offering full-time employment to some 450 workers.
It’s a powerful suite of operations by any measure. But Arnold’s Cove Deputy Mayor Aiden Wadman says his town didn’t fully take advantage of the obvious opportunities it presented until recently.
“We’ve always had commercial space available, but we had never had it properly developed,” he says. “A couple of years ago we worked out a plan to service the lots; now they are fully serviced with water, sewer, pavement, and curbs.” The new business park, though open to businesses from any sector, is being marketed primarily as a service and supply hub to the oil and gas industry — not surprising, given its location.
Although the Hebron project, which has been occupying the Bull Arm site for the past few years, will be wrapping up soon and oil prices are still fairly low, Wadman is confident the region is in for a steady stream of activity.
“In the last six to eight years, Nalcor has been aggressive in rebuilding the Bull Arm infrastructure up to world-class standards,” he says. “They’re working to keep the site filled … and the refinery is always busy, no matter the price of oil, and we can benefit from that.”
Wadman points out that Arnold’s Cove, population 1,200, has more services than many towns its size, including a bank, pharmacy, grocery store, and regional school.
“Perhaps our business park should have been done years ago,” admits Wadman, “but we’re looking ahead to the next big project. Nalcor is collecting very promising data that points to new oil fields, and new projects. We’re ready.”
While no one doubts the oil and gas industry will continue to play an important role in the future of the Golden Triangle — and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, for that matter — it’s not the only resource game in town. A couple of new or prospective mining operations are capturing the attention of leaders in the area, who are working to be ready to take advantage of the economic buzz.
Canada Fluorspar Inc. is well into the revitalization and reopening of the fluorspar mines near Saint Lawrence, projected to bring up to 400 jobs during through the construction phase until 2018, then 200 full-time operations jobs and 500 indirect jobs for the decade-plus expected lifetime of the project. The company estimates in excess of 22 million tonnes of fluorspar are accessible.
Just west of Saint Lawrence, Puddle Pond Resources, a private junior exploration company based in Bay Roberts, has located potentially significant finds of gold and silver near Point May-Calmer. The company planned to spend $1 million this year in drilling and other exploration and mapping activities for its Heritage Project, as the operation has been dubbed.
And just up the road from Puddle Pond Resources’ work is Grand Bank. Historically, the bustling and picturesque town on the toe of the Burin Peninsula was the trading and supply capital of Newfoundland’s south coast — and that’s a reputation Conrad Collier, the economic development officer of the Grand Bank Development Corporation, says the town is looking to revive.
Collier says his town is positioned to offer services and supplies for the burgeoning mining industry, as well as to oil and gas interests, the local modern fishing industry. Grand Bank is particularly well situated as a hub for aquaculture projects both along Newfoundland’s southwest coast and in Placentia Bay. Collier highlights Grieg NL Nurseries and Grieg NL Seafarms’ proposed $250-million salmon farming operations in Marystown and Placentia Bay, which were released through the province’s environmental assessment process in July.
“We have the resources here already on the ground to support industries that come to Grand Bank, and those that set up in our region,” says Conrad Collier, “That includes access to a skilled and loyal workforce … the entire Burin Peninsula is basically within a short commuting distance from our town.”
The Grand Bank Development Corporation was launched in 1991 in the wake of the collapse of the deep-sea cod fishery, and since its inception has made great strides toward its goals of diversifying the town’s economy.
Dynamic Air Shelters, for example, a manufacturer of lightweight, rapidly deployable shelters, has found international success; Metal Manu-Works, a busy industrial fabrication and maintenance shop, is looking to expand. Grand Bank Seafoods (owned by Clearwater) operates three large vessels providing year-round work at its processing facility in Grand Bank. Family-run businesses, museums, a renowned theatre festival, an active harbour, health care facilities, construction companies, and other retail operations keep the community vibrant.
“We’re very happy with the diversification we’ve achieved thus far but we’d be remiss if we sat back on our laurels,” Collier says. It’s why the Grand Bank Development Corporation has a selection of financial incentives in order to attract more businesses and to support or expand existing ones, taking advantage of an uptick in the target sectors of aquaculture and mining, as well as the town’s ideal location as a provider of supplies and services across many sectors of the Burin Peninsula economy.
Placentia Bay, one of the largest deep ice-free bays in the world, plays a key role in the success of many of the area’s industries. It has become an important and accessible transportation link, not only within Atlantic Canada’s ocean transportation network, but also between Europe and the rest of Canada and North America.
Certainly, Argentia is actively working to take greater advantage of this geography, much as the US Navy did when it commissioned its base there 75 years ago. In 2016 — three-quarters of a century after World War II brought the location to the world’s attention — the Port of Argentia was awarded the Innovator of the Year award by the Placentia Area Chamber of Commerce.
It’s been quite a journey of diversification for the port and, as far as general manager Chris Newhook is concerned, Argentia’s glory days are far from over. His organization’s recent rebranding, from “Argentia Management Authority” to the more pointed “Port of Argentia,” has been widely embraced and celebrated, and has attracted interest from around the world.
“We do rent land, we are a significant property authority, but the new branding gets at who we are, and what our key value proposition is — it’s very much about being a port,” says Newhook. “Our vision is for the Port of Argentia to be the premier heavy industrial seaport in Newfoundland and Labrador … It may come true very soon.”
It’s the “heavy industrial” part of that statement that sets this location apart from the province’s other busy ports. Port of Argentia is expansive, with over 2,000 acres of developed, flat land and some 700 metres (2,100 feet) of berth space available near heavy lift docks on tidewater. All of that land is segmented from residential areas by a curtain of hills. “We may allow a temporary work camp, but there are no permanent residents in Argentia,” says Newhook. “Our intention is to be zoned industrial and to remain industrial.”
The ice-free port has three wharf complexes, including the Navy Dock, the Marine Atlantic terminal (with a roll-on/roll-off ramp facility), and the refurbished fleet dock. “The recent construction of the Husky Energy graving dock on site is a strong indicator of the site’s potential to serve future fabrication, repair and maintenance, and marine transportation needs of the Newfoundland offshore industry.”
Dozens of tenants are already in place, from a wide variety of sectors, including marine transportation, fabrication, construction, mining, information technology, oil and gas, and more.
Given the size, depth, and infrastructure of the port, Newhook says Argentia is poised to receive large shipping vessels, most often en route from Europe to the Eastern Seaboard. The onboard goods could be unloaded while there and reloaded onto smaller feeder vessels for transportation onwards. “The hub and spoke concept is the future of shipping,” says Newhook, “and we have the potential to be an important hub.”
Already, the Port is working year-round with an international container line, Eimskip of Iceland — the only port in the province to do so.
The Port of Argentia has “all the normal port services,” says Newhook, including, as of August 2016, bunkering services in cooperation with North Atlantic Refining Ltd. The oil will be provided by that company’s refinery in Come By Chance; the bunker tanker will be able to refuel vessels safely, effectively, and cost-efficiently at sea or at the dockside, 24 hours a day.
While one of the Port of Argentia’s key selling features is its commitment to its industrial customers, Newhook makes clear that the port is working in tandem with the town of Placentia (the port actually falls within the town limits) to reach their mutual goals. “Our mandate is very focused on the benefits we can bring to our town,” he says, “so that it can be a boost for our town and our region.”
And so, if the Port of Argentia is about heavy industrial development, global shipping connections, and manufacturing and fabrication, Placentia is its ideal complement: an oasis of ocean views, picturesque winding roads, residential development, culture, community, and the necessary services needed for living life. Just five minutes’ drive from Argentia, the town has restaurants, grocery stores, various supply and service businesses, as well as sports, education, and medical facilities.
It’s also got a business path of its own, and a raft of incentives are offered to encourage new businesses and innovative start-ups in a range of sectors, from tourism to technology. The town is becoming a regional hub, especially in light of the renewed growth in interest and activity at Argentia.
“We have built a community that is well-positioned to take advantage of the southwestern Avalon’s economic momentum,” says Placentia Mayor Wayne Power, pointing out that the town is equipped with the latest communication infrastructure and connectivity, making it possible for residents to become an active part of the worldwide business community.
Offering another nod toward the community’s deep and colourful past, Power points out that Placentia “lies within easy distance to all the major projects in the region, and yet maintains its distinctive small town character — a character increasingly attractive to young families seeking a better quality of life without giving up modern conveniences and connectivity.”
That may be the balance that makes the Golden Triangle stand out as a region to watch: it’s connected to the global marketplace and transportation webs, yet its towns still believe in the importance of local community and in being good neighbours. Modern industry and the exploration, exploitation, and processing of abundant natural resources are balanced by a respect for history and culture; the need for diversification is, in many places, being met with creativity and openness.
As Placentia Mayor Power states — speaking for his own town but with words that could apply to the broader region: “We have endured the ups and downs of history through strategic planning, determination, and a tenacious work ethic … this will continue and see us through to the future.”
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