How a town and its people moved on from a devastating mine closure, through the eyes of three Sussex residents
SUSSEX MAYOR Marc Thorne was up early as usual on the morning of January 19, 2016.
Thorne is an early riser who often stops by the Tim Horton’s outlet on the New Brunswick town’s Main Street, chatting with the locals and getting caught up on the scuttlebutt. It’s one way for Thorne to take the pulse of the community and get a gauge of what’s on their minds. It’s the kind of on-the-ground intelligence that’s important for a municipal politician to gather.
But as Thorne was leaving the restaurant that winter morning he got a call from a local reporter. The reporter wanted to get his reaction to the closure of PotashCorp’s $2.2 billion Picadilly mine—an operation a stone’s throw from Sussex that had opened in late 2014. “My first reaction was that he had somehow got it wrong,” Thorne says. “I couldn’t believe a mining company that had spent $2.2 billion on this would announce something like that. I was completely stunned. Our community did not see this coming.”
Unfortunately for Thorne and Sussex, the reporter wasn’t mistaken. PotashCorp was indeed pulling the plug on its brand new potash mine. The company blamed the closure (to be fair, PotashCorp called it a “suspension” and has kept a small crew of 35 people at the mine ever since) on lower than expected demand for potash, slumping prices and the fact it cost more to mine the ore at Picadilly than at any of its other potash mines in Canada. The decision put 400-plus people out of work and dealt a significant blow to the economy of this town of approximately 5,300 residents.
What were Sussex and its residents to do now that a major employer was pulling up stakes and leaving? Would Sussex survive the body blow? And how would the town and the region move on after such an abrupt and significant economic disruption?
It hasn’t been easy or without its challenges, but Sussex and its residents have moved on from the closure of the Picadilly mine. The town hasn’t run away from it. It’s embraced it. It’s a story of resolve, of optimism, and in some cases, of making hard decisions based on economic realities. And that story is best told by some of the people of Sussex who were impacted by the mine closure.
Marc Thorne’s day job is working as a civil technologist for the New Brunswick government, much of it designing highway and bridge construction. But once PotashCorp announced the Picadilly mine closure, the 58-year-old found himself at the forefront of designing a way forward for the Sussex economy.
The task was formidable, and Thorne took three consecutive days of holiday after the announcement to stay at the town hall and deal with the fallout. There were interviews to be done with local and national media. There were meetings to attend with provincial and government officials to talk about the safety nets that would be put in place for the miners and the families impacted by the closure. There was also a future without potash mining for the first time since the 1980s to plan for. “It was enormously stressful for me, but my thoughts were for the 400-plus people who were losing their jobs,” Thorne says.
One of the common narratives that emerged in the days after the mine closure was that Sussex would be devastated by the loss of Picadilly and the employment it generated, both directly and indirectly. Thorne remembers doing an interview with Anna Maria Tremonti, host of CBC Radio’s The Current, where she asked him what the town would do once car dealerships and other small businesses started to close because the mine was no longer operating and the economy was in freefall. “I was stunned by the assumption of some that we were done,” he says. “It was a big blow, but we were going to get through it.”
I was stunned by the assumption of some that we were done.
Marc Thorne, Sussex mayor
What Tremonti and other outsiders didn’t know is that Sussex and the region it serves, known as Greater Sussex-Hampton, is not a one-industry economy. PotashCorp was the largest employer, but it was not the only employer. The dairy and forestry industries have always been strong here, and it’s a service centre for a region with over 48,000 people. Community leaders knew this already, but they also realized Sussex wasn’t going to get through this crisis by hoping for the best. What they did instead, led at first by the Sussex and District Chamber of Commerce, was spring into action.
The town hired an economic development coordinator and started a process that resulted in a regional development strategy, which was released in February of 2017. The strategy identifies seven pillars of economic activity for the region. Three of them—unified tourism, arts and culture, geothermal energy and food production and processing—will be the focus of immediate attention for the region. Thorne sounds genuinely proud of the strategy and the work that went into developing it. However, he admits Sussex has been negatively impacted by Picadilly’s closure. “It would be premature of me to say we’ve solved the issue and are not still smarting from the closure,” Thorne says.
He says tax assessments were growing three-to-five per cent annually before the mine closure. They declined by two per cent the year following. Real estate activity slowed considerably. There was also a human cost, as laid off miners and their families who chose to stay in Sussex had different outcomes as the weeks and months passed. “I speak with individuals each and every week about this. Some families have done fine and are on their feet. Others are still struggling to find their way,” Thorne says.
It’s impossible to replace 430 jobs overnight. Thorne says people have a tendency to look for a magic bullet to solve a crisis. There is no such bullet for Sussex and the surrounding region. But it does have a plan. The mayor says he doesn’t expect to see results from it to be visible until 2019-2020. He also says it’s unlikely the jobs that come out of new economic activity generated from the plan will pay as well as the ones that were lost at the mine. But he is optimistic about Sussex’s future, optimism that hasn’t wavered since January 2016. “Even during that first week I felt this was something we were going to get past, and we are doing the work to get past it.” Thorne says.
Time will tell if Thorne’s optimism is warranted.
Blair Hyslop’s ‘aha’ moment in the Picadilly mine closure crisis occurred at a meeting called by the Sussex and District Chamber of Commerce shortly after the announcement had been made. The owner and president of Mrs. Dunster’s, a Sussex-based baking and food distribution business, was at the meeting with 50 to 60 other people. As Hyslop tells it, the attendees were there to find out what ‘they’ were going to do to save Sussex. And by ‘they’, he says the attendees meant the provincial and federal governments.
The government officials made it clear that once the community decided what its priorities were to grow the economy in the wake of the mine closure, they would support them. However, they weren’t going to make those choices for the community. “The meeting kind of hung there. Nobody knew what to do,” Hyslop says. “But clearly a plan had to be done. I offered to facilitate a process to develop a strategic economic plan.”
Having volunteered to lead the process, Hyslop helped steer it as meetings and brainstorming led to the Greater Sussex-Hampton Region Economic Development Strategy. Along the way, the strengths of the community were identified, and priorities were established. As the facilitator and a business leader with skin in the game, Hyslop was in the thick of it all. “There were naysayers that said this was the end of the town,” he says. “But we’ve never been just a mining town. We have a lot of infrastructure that can attract businesses.”
Hyslop and his wife bought Mrs. Dunster’s in 2014. Despite dealing with the impacts of the mine closure, their business has been growing. The company has gone from 56 employees to 131. Food distribution businesses like Mrs. Dunster’s have a long history in the region, but Hyslop is excited about some of the other priorities the plan landed on. Geothermal energy development is one of them. The town is looking into the potential of using geothermal energy from the flooded shafts of the Penobsquis potash mine, which PotashCorp closed in 2015 and lies across the road from Picadilly, to attract new businesses to the area that need large and affordable sources of heating and cooling to run their operations.
We’ve never been just a mining town. We have a lot of infrastructure that can attract businesses.
Blair Hyslop, president, Mrs. Dunster’s
Hyslop also believes its central location in the Maritimes—it’s near the Bay of Fundy, the ports of Saint John and Halifax and close to the Saint John River system— make Sussex an attractive place to do business. Now that it’s got a strategic plan in place and knows what sectors it will target to woo new businesses to locate there, it must start promoting its strengths to New Brunswick and beyond. “We’ve got to get our story out there to the people that make decisions,” Hyslop says. “We’ve got a great location, a great workforce and a great place to live.”
He is even convinced the Picadilly mine will re-open someday. But even if it doesn’t, he believes Sussex has emerged as a stronger community because of the closure and its response to it. “We now have a strong economic plan. We’ve raised the bar on community engagement and lots of businesses are aware of how others can support them,” Hyslop says. “We have planted a tremendous amount of seeds with this plan and are less reliant on one employer.”
David Korth expected to be a Picadilly lifer. He started his PotashCorp career at Penobsquis in 2010 working with the construction crew underground. By 2016 he had become the facilitator for the company’s exposure-based safety process at the Picadilly mine.
Then on the morning of January 19, 2016, Korth and his fellow employees had a meeting with company officials who delivered the bad news—the mine was closing. “When we heard the news initially we were somewhere between shock and panic,” Korth says.
The reaction was understandable. Korth and his wife Koreena had two girls, Abagail and Annabelle. They also farmed part-time and carried a heavy debt load as a result. PotashCorp did say there was an opportunity for the Picadilly employees to fill more than 100 vacancies at its Rocanville potash mine in Saskatchewan. K+S Potash Canada also came looking for workers in Sussex when the news about the Picadilly closure broke. The Korths could also try to make a go of it in Sussex with Dave taking a job somewhere else.
When we heard the news initially we were somewhere between shock and panic.
Dave Korth, former Piccadilly mine employee
Some of the 400-plus workers who lost their jobs at Picadilly were close to retirement age and took their pension and called it a day. Some stayed in the Sussex area and got work elsewhere or started their own businesses. Others decided to make the trek to Saskatchewan’s potash mines. Dave Korth and his family would do the latter.
Korth says the night the mine closed the family sat together at their kitchen table and talked about job opportunities in the Sussex area. They talked about the possibility of Dave taking a fly-in and fly-out job in Western Canada. His girls (Abagail is now 16 and Annabelle is 14) didn’t want their father gone away from them weeks at a time. So the family made the decision to move. Dave would take a job at the Rocanville mine. “It did not take us long to decide that for us the opportunity to go to Saskatchewan was the best choice,” Korth says. “As parents we decided that there would be more future opportunity for our girls out west than in New Brunswick. It was not the easiest decision, but for us it was the smartest one.”
The family lives in Kelso, about a two-hour drive from Regina. Korth admits it’s tough at times being so far away from their family and friends in Sussex. But Koreena has a job as a spare bus driver for the local school district. Their daughters are involved in sports and both have jobs after school, and the family took a positive attitude to the move instead of viewing it like they were being sent to some prairie prison. In fact, the move has worked out well enough that Korth isn’t sure he would move back to Sussex even if the Picadilly mine were to re-open.
“Of course we would think about it. However, there are a lot of things to consider. The difference in the economy is a huge concern. I don’t want to move back to New Brunswick only to have my daughters move out west for work. [Moving back] would take some careful thought,” Korth says.