Students tackle future of Slocan mill site

Second of two parts

What awaits Slocan following the demolition of its waterfront sawmill and the corresponding blow to its tax coffers? What will become of the land and how can the village support itself without major industry?

Second-year students from Selkirk College’s integrated environmental planning program have been asking those questions of themselves and others over the last few months while working on ideas to further the goals of the village’s recently adopted official community plan. They’ll present their draft results at an open house on Monday and seek community feedback.

“I was looking for projects and a couple of people mentioned Slocan because of the major transition occurring at the mill site,” instructor Peter Holton explains. “We pitched it to [the village]. They were receptive and the community has been very open to the idea. They seem engaged in the work we’re trying to do.”

Holton identified a broad list of topics mentioned in the official community plan — including climate change, food security, parks, seniors housing, and watershed management — and each student chose one to design an implementation plan.

But it’s the potential redevelopment of the Springer Creek Forest Products sawmill site that presents the biggest challenges and opportunities. Lia Postnikoff, a Slocan Valley resident, and classmate Rob Fox tackled the issues involved with ensuring the 20 acres of waterfront remains a community benefit.

“This land is an invaluable resource to the area if it can be effectively used in a way that will support the various social, economic and environmental aspects of the area,” they write in their draft. “The main plan goal is to ultimately re-create the waterfront site as a main attraction of life in Slocan while providing economic rejuvenation and resiliency for the village.”

The big caveat is that the site is privately owned. Brisco Wood Products, the parent company of Springer Creek Forest Products, hasn’t indicated what it intends to do with the property once demolition is complete later this year.

However, the students say the village does have tools to help ensure an outcome acceptable to residents. The official community plan talks about rezoning the area and Postnikoff and Fox suggest it should become a combination of commercial and park space “to envelop a diverse range of desired applications and uses.”

They have no shortage of ideas for those uses: from the rejuvenation of the waterfront as a beach and restoration of the natural watercourse of Springer Creek to a farmer’s market, community garden, organic bistro, cabin rentals, microbrewery, or artist’s retreat.

The plan also looks at other mill site redevelopments around North America and identifies potential funding sources. But the authors say public involvement is the “most important asset to achieving this vision … It is necessary to have motivated individuals commit to assisting the community in creating an enticing space for the diverse range of needs and wants.”

The students have met twice with village council and had informal conversations with residents, but Monday will be their main chance to solicit local input.

“More than anything we’re trying to start a conversation and fire imaginations about what could happen on the mill site,” Holton says. “The challenge, of course, is that’s private land, and it’s up to a developer working with the village to decide what might be feasible. But it’s such a tremendous opportunity for Slocan to reinvent themselves, from a mill town to who knows what?”

Based on the input they receive, the students will revise their documents and produce final versions next month. But ultimately, it’s up to the village to decide whether and how to use their work.

Monday’s open house goes from 5 to 7 p.m. at W.E. Graham school in Slocan with a formal presentation at 6:30.

Mill closure creates budget woes

During its last few years of operation, Springer Creek Forest Products paid about $230,000 in municipal property taxes and about $135,000 in 2012 after the mill shut down. That still accounted for about two-thirds of Slocan's overall property tax roll and 16 per cent of its total revenue.

After selling its timber licenses to Interfor and reaching a settlement with its remaining employees, the company began demolishing the buildings on its millsite last fall. Once the work is complete and the site is reassessed, property taxes are expected to drop to $2,300 — representing less than one per cent of the village’s total revenue.

The village reduced the company’s property taxes by five per cent in each of 2009, 2010, and 2011 and deferred penalties on arrears in 2010. (The company has since paid its back taxes.) The village has cash reserves and recently raised taxes to make up in the short term for the expected $140,000 shortfall this year — the mill’s former tax bill — but it remains to be seen how it will manage in the future.

Source: Village of Slocan Mill Site Redevelopment plan, Lia Postnikoff and Rob Fox, February 2014

Above: No, they’re not The Beatles, but second-year Selkirk College integrated environmental planning students have been spending time in Slocan over the last few months trying to advance the village’s official community plan. Part of that has involved looking at the future of the mill site, which is presently being demolished.

Student plans not just academic

For the past 13 years, students in Selkirk College’s integrated environmental planning program have been preparing pro bono plans for local governments and other agencies, including Nelson, Castlegar, Rossland, the Friends of Cottonwood Creek, and Kootenay Lake Partnership.

Sometimes the plans do lead to action. For example, students helped Rossland get funding for their active transportation plan and their work on Cottonwood Creek was used in a grant application for stormwater drainage improvements.

“It’s more than just an assignment,” says instructor Peter Holton. “It’s a real-world client, and students are able to walk out of the program with something in their portfolio, and not just another test score.”

Previous: How Slocan's beach became a sawmill

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