Chetwynd lacks accommodations for growing workforce

There is virtually a zero vacancy rate in the town, said Mayor Evan Saugstad.

“As soon as something is emptied and cleaned up it’s filled again,” he said.

He said BC Housing is looking at a partnership to acquire land for a housing development. The mayor said while Chetwynd certainly could use affordable housing for lower-income individuals and families, there is an equally pressing need for housing and rental accommodations for higher-income people, specifically those moving in to work in the area’s coal mines.

Saugstad said there is already one worker's camp in town that is looking to expand, but camps are not the district`s preferred option to house the town`s expanding workforce.

“Camps are a stop-gap, temporary measure to fill the need until we can find somebody that actually wants to build housing,” he said.

He said they would like to see permanent developments, but there are a number of factors that might be discouraging developers from building in Chetwynd. He said across the province, generally, there has been a trend away from building new rental housing because of the high cost versus the low rate of return on investment. He added there are no major developers, as there are in Dawson Creek and Fort St. John, in the town to build single-family housing units, for example.

However, Saugstad said the main issue might be that Chetwynd is a resource-dependent town and developers may be waiting to see what the projected lifespan of the mines proposed in the area will be.

“There’s a whole bunch of stuff that comes together as an issue, but in the short term, people want to see whether the mines get up and running and stay running before they put in any substantial investment," said the mayor. "Right now, it’s a wait-and-see, the developers have to see whether the mines are for real before they put their money into it.”

He said there is lots of land available for housing developments, including some already developed and more that could be developed. He added the district eliminated development cost charges to encourage that investment. He said they are also looking to the Northern Development Initiative Trust and a program used in Prince George to incentivise development to see if it could be applied in Chetwynd.

Saugstad said the municipality doesn’t have the money to fund developments, and the senior levels of government tend to focus on subsidized housing for lower-income people. He said it might come to the point where the coal companies themselves will have to have to look at investing in housing.

One of the larger companies operating in the area, Walter Energy, acknowledges the lack of infrastructure, including housing, is a main concern when looking to recruit and retain local people.

"It's a primary issue, because as we recruit people to the community – especially within Chetwynd, but Tumbler Ridge is the same – it doesn't have the infrastructure to support people, including homes," said Susan McKellar, the company's human resources manager for its Canadian operations. "We're trying to work with the local districts to see what we can do to move that forward."

The Florida-based company operates the Willow Creek, Brule and Wolverine mines since acquiring Vancouver-based Western Coal earlier this year. McKellar said the company anticipates needing about 300 additional workers to expand their operations in the region – specifically at the Willow Creek and Brule mines – and their goal is to recruit locally. However, she said there is no question the lack of accommodations is a limiting factor for drawing people to the communities and they are currently looking at formulating an action plan with the local districts.

However, she wouldn't say whether those options include direct investment in permanent dwellings.

As far as any uncertainty, McKellar said her company has been clear on what its expansion plans are. She said an expansion permit was already approved at Willow Creek mine and construction on associated facilities is with ongoing. She said at this point they do not require an expansion permit for the Brule mine but will continue to grow operations at that mine in the future.