VERNON - It remains unknown whether the railroad between Vernon and Kelowna will ever reopen, but at least one Okanagan business won’t be around to find out.
Ashland Inc. announced the closure of its Kelowna plant Tuesday morning. Ashland manufactures fibre glass and plastic polymers used by a host of Okanagan companies for making RVs, boats, water slides and household fixtures like shower stalls and bathtubs. The branch’s last day will be June 27, almost a year to the day that Kelowna Pacific Railway declared bankruptcy.
“It is sad news, but not completely shocking to us,” Ashland plant manager Kelly Brown says. “We know we’ve a had a struggle in our business ever since the great recession of 2008/2009, and then basically when we had to switch from shipping our products from rail to trucking, that was pretty much the last straw.”
The plant on McCarthy Road in Kelowna employed 32 people. Brown says they took the news as well as can be expected under such circumstances.
“Quite often with large companies you come in one morning and the doors are locked. I think it’s a telling statement about our employees that Ashland could tell us (four months in advance) and felt they could rely on us to keep working,” Brown says.
Organizations voiced concern over the ripple effect that might be caused if Ashland shut down, but at least one business supplied by it isn’t concerned. Tom Pinkney, the plant manager for Kohler Canada in Armstrong, says Ashland will supply them directly from its Los Angeles plant.
“We’ll be sorry to see that factory go, but they’ve assured us there should not be any disruptions,” Pinkney says.
While it’s too late for Ashland, Canadian National continues to negotiate with parties interested in resuming service on the line. Those discussions are taking place behind closed doors, and if a deal cannot be reached, CN will next offer the land to local, provincial and federal levels of government. If there are still no takers, the land will go up for sale to the general public as part of the federally regulated process CN must follow in selling off the line.
Okanagan College economics professor Brad Clements is leading a movement to protect the corridor for recreational uses if railway operations do not resume. Along with a group of volunteers, he’s making sure government is aware of the once in a lifetime opportunity to buy the land. To help quantify the benefits of such a corridor, the Okanagan Rail Trail Initiative is funding an economic study.
“We want to be able to say, if we protect it now, it will be worth X amount of dollars in tourism, health benefits, and as a transportation corridor in the future,” Clements says.
But the group may have less time than they thought to mobilize the community and the government. If negotiations fail with what Clements understands to be the lone company still interested in taking over the line, CN will immediately offer it to government, and that’s news to the Rail Trail group. They thought the line wouldn’t be offered to government until June, after the specified six month negotiation window was over.
“Technically, any day between now and June, if negotiations fail, the 120 day window to government begins,” Clements says.
While he supports the reopening of the railway first and foremost, he’s skeptical whether it realistically will.
“What CN has mentioned is they looked at it and couldn’t see how they could operate it as a railway. If CN says there’s not enough business to make it viable, how could someone else do that?” he says.
He knows preserving the corridor will take millions of dollars and strong community support in several municipalities along the line, but he remains optimistic.
“I think this whole idea is definitely within the realm of possibility. It’s just going to take residents, politicians, bureaucrats and a few people with vision to help make it happen,” Clements says.
To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at email@example.com or call 250-309-5230.