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Flax plant’s future up in the air

The flames that consumed the Glanbia flax-processing plant south of Angusville were doused last week, but a smouldering sense of uncertainty lingers.

The plant formerly owned by Glen and Linda Pizzey was the largest employer in the RM of Silver Creek, providing not only 58 good-paying, full-time jobs, but also a large chunk of the municipality’s tax base.

“They’re doing their best and they’re keeping everybody on, but the company hasn’t decided what they are going to do,” said Garth McTavish, reeve of the municipality with just over 400 residents.

Up until the fire on March 13, the plant processed about one million bushels of flax and generated about $30 million to $40 million in annual revenue.

Glanbia representatives have told locals that a final decision on whether to rebuild or not will have to be made at the company’s head office in Ireland. That won’t be forthcoming until all the costs of reconstruction are tallied up in a process that is expected to take at least 90 days.

Company officials have admitted that up to half of the staff may have to be laid off even if the plant is rebuilt, and the timeline for resuming full operations could be as long as two years.

“The problem is that nobody knows. They’re a big company. They could move or they could just close the doors,” said McTavish, adding that Glanbia has a handful of other plants in North America that are being used to fill the gaps in production.

Rich Tauberman, a spokesman for Glanbia Nutritionals, said that the company is working with the authorities to better understand the situation there, and looking at different options.

Until a decision is made in the next few weeks, the 58 employees at the plant will continue to be paid and receive full benefits.

“There is a business continuity plan in place, so the company is fulfilling contracts as best they can,” he said.

Dick Harvey, a fire investigator for the Brandon Fire Commissioner’s office, said that the cause of the fire that resulted in more than $7 million in damage is believed to have been related to the overheating of grain in the area of the pasteurizer.

“At this point in time, we’re still classifying it as accidental,” said Harvey, adding that the investigation was still ongoing.

“We’re waiting for access to a hi-hoe to get farther into the building to look at a few other things. But it’s unsafe to get in there right now.”

The fire caused extensive damage to the main processing building, and cleanup hasn’t begun mainly because a tendering process for the necessary heavy equipment must be completed first.

Linda Pizzey, who along with her husband Glen founded and operated the flax plant up until they sold it to Glanbia in 2007, said that she was “pessimistic” about the plant’s future.

“I think right now everyone is crossing their fingers and hoping that they’ll rebuild here,” said Pizzey.

“The only ones who don’t seem to be concerned at all are in the provincial government.”

During the years that the Pizzeys operated the plant, the province’s lack of support was evident in their refusal to upgrade the three-mile stretch of road running from Hwy. 45 to the plant. That made it difficult to move product in and out of the plant with heavy trucks, she said.

“Every time we brought it to the minister’s attention, he basically said, ‘Why did you bother to build there?’” said Pizzey.

That attitude must change, she added, and the province must step in and provide incentives for the company to rebuild.

“There’s got to be some good reason for them to stay here. Building the road up to where it can handle the truck traffic would be a start,” she said.

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