Huge opportunity lost

The proposed $5.6 billion petrochemical plant for Prince George is on the move north, taking millions of dollars of annual local tax revenue and local economic activity with it.

Sure, Prince George will still gain plenty as the regional centre for people and supplies but it will be crumbs from the feast that will be enjoyed by the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George and the McLeod Lake Indian Band.

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For some, that works out great. Whatever pollution created will be well away from Prince George and the city still benefits economically. For others, this is just another sign of a noisy minority kicking up a loud enough fuss to hound the proponents of the largest proposed economic development project this city has seen in half a century right out of town.

"We aren't going to build the project where people don't want it. We're moving it up, just north of Prince George, into McLeod Lake (Indian Band) territory," West Coast Olefins CEO Ken James told The Citizen last week after breaking the news to a virtual event hosted by the B.C. Resources Coalition. "We're looking at a couple locations right now. We're working with Chief (Harley) Chingee and his people on that. When we decide, we'll announce that to the public."

There are really only a handful of locations that meet three essential criteria for the proposed plant: near Highway 97, near a rail line and near Enbridge’s natural gas pipeline.

Bear Lake, just north of the Crooked River Provincial Park, seems to have all the necessary ingredients, along with plenty of flat land, a small existing community and an industrial operation already present in Canfor’s Polar sawmill.

While that’s about 70 kilometres past Prince George’s northern city borders, that’s still a manageable daily commute for Hart residents. It suddenly makes rural properties in Salmon Valley and Summit Lake look quite appealing for the people who would be part of the construction and operation of the ethylene plant. Living in the country, paying less taxes and a much shorter commute to work? What’s not to like about that?

Maybe James and his investors came to a similar realization.

Why pay city taxes for 120 hectares in the BCR Industrial Site when they could pay regional district taxes?

Why negotiate with the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation (who seemed – at best – lukewarm to the proposed facility) when West Coast Olefins already has a working relationship agreement in place with the McLeod Lake band?

So moving the plant north makes a lot of sense to a lot of people but local residents and municipal government are allowed to dream of what could have been. If the plant had met or exceeded all of the environmental requirements and included significant educational and employment opportunities for Lheidli T’enneh members, those thousands of direct and indirect jobs could have led to amazing, permanent benefits, both for the First Nation and the city.

The tax revenue alone would have allowed the City of Prince George to pay for many capital projects without borrowing the money and/or passing the costs onto homeowners and other businesses. 

Seen through that light, if the West Coast Olefins project comes to pass, Prince George will be missing out far more than it will gain.

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