Port Hawkesbury Paper celebrating five years of staying open

Five years ago this week, many in the Strait of Canso area breathed a collective sigh of relief when its largest single employer restarted production after a yearlong shutdown.

The reopening of what is now Port Hawkesbury Paper came after a year of legal wrangling and negotiations with the various groups that have a stake in the future of the mill, formerly NewPage Port Hawkesbury, which had shut down when its parent company filed for bankruptcy protection in the United States.

It’s a very different company than when it shut down in September 2011. Only one of the mill’s two paper machines — the newer supercalendered machine that produces paper for the magazine and catalogue market — went back into production, cutting the number of employees by about half to around 300.

“It sneaks up on you,” Archie MacLachlan, first vice-president of Unifor Local 972 which represents Port Hawkesbury Paper’s unionized employees, said of the anniversary, noting many people probably don’t realize the amount of time that has passed.

“We knew all along we had a pretty good operation here and were certainly thankful that somebody bought the operation and we’ve run the last five years basically very well.”

New owner Pacific West Commercial Corp., headed by Ron Stern, won concessions from the union, a discounted power rate, a tax deal with Richmond County and approval of the $33-million purchase by creditors and the courts, as well as $124.5 million in aid from the province over 10 years.

There have been a few short market-related shutdowns in the past two years, but company officials have generally reported strong order books. MacLachlan said the relative strength of the Canadian dollar has also helped the mill, which exports most of its product to the United States.

He said there have been “a few bumps in the road.”

“We’re only half the size we used to be, so there’s been a lot of people forced to move elsewhere and a lot of challenges for the retirees who took quite a cut in their pension,” MacLachlan said. “I know the community as a whole is thankful that the mill started up. You really don’t hear much about it, and that’s probably a good thing.”

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