October 2013

The big boom

Mt. Milligan mine breathing new life into two B.C. towns

By Andrew Livingstone

When the lumber industry in British Columbia took a major nosedive in 2008 due to the recession, Mackenzie Mayor Stephanie Killam wondered how – and if – her town would recover.

Some 1,000 local jobs disappeared, with mill closures and layoffs associated with the sluggish U.S. housing market. Built as a mill town by Alexandra Forest Industries and Cattermole Timber nearly 50 years ago, Mackenzie has relied heavily on the forestry sector for jobs and economic stability for its 4,500 residents. The town’s prospects hinged on a project that had been in the making for two decades: the Mt. Milligan copper-gold mine, 95 kilometres to the west, which had yet to be developed.

However, with the start-up of the much talked about mine on August 15 – and with it expected to reach 60,000 tonnes per day throughput by year’s end – the small town is racing from the recession with a long-term vision and some stability in its sights.

Around 80 new families are living in Mackenzie already, said Killam, who was a long-time town councillor before becoming mayor seven years ago. Thompson Creek, the Denver-based miner that took over the project when it acquired Terrane Metals in 2010, expects to employ nearly 350 workers at its open-pit mine. At full capacity, the mine will produce an average of 81 million pounds of copper and 194,500 ounces of gold annually over its projected 22-year life. In 2012, Mt. Milligan pumped nearly $125 million into local businesses and, that November, the number of employees working at the mine peaked at 1,035 during the final phases of construction.

As a result, Mackenzie is bustling. Earlier this year, 18 new residential lots were developed and put up for sale. While this may seem like small potatoes, for a town where this kind of residential development has not occurred in 20-plus years, it says a lot about where the town is heading because of the mine.

The town’s industrial area, along a 5,000-foot airstrip, is being redeveloped, and the local co-op is putting in a commercial cardlock fuel stop. The number of doctors in the town has doubled since 2012 (there are now four), and a local developer has plans for a hotel, pub, mall and laundromat, says Killam.

While Fort St. James, almost an equal distance from the mine as Mackenzie, was not as hard hit by the recession (three mills closed but two eventually re-opened), it is benefiting greatly from Mt. Milligan, said economic development officer Emily Colombo. At least two dozen companies received construction contracts as part of Thompson Creek’s 2012 construction work.

Fort St. James residents were at first skeptical about the mine ever opening. “It had been a topic of conversation for decades,” said Colombo. But now it has helped the town become the third-fastest growing community in B.C. Fort St. James has grown 25 per cent from 2006 to 2011. And this growth is not exclusively mining-related. “We’re also seeing a lot of people coming in the support sectors, like business owners, and the public sector, as in RCMP officers and educators,” she explained.

“We have more people than we have houses,” Colombo continued. “We’re almost bursting at the seams. What we’re looking at is a housing shortage.” The town is working to fix the problem: with neighbouring communities Vanderhoof and Fraser Lake, the towns are in talks about how to use regional housing to deal with the shortages. Fort St. James is also developing a housing needs analysis to approach potential developers, said Colombo.

As of July, 69 per cent of the mine’s workforce came from the local region (Mackenzie, Fort St. James and Prince George), with 90 per cent of full-time employees coming from within British Columbia, according to the mine’s website.

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