NWT pellet mill, now much bigger project, promises ‘huge impact’
In an ocean of economic strife, Brad Mapes believes his 320-hectare parcel of South Slave land is about to become the NWT’s beacon of hope.
Initially, Mapes expected to build a wood pellet mill on his land in Enterprise. Now, he has plans for nine different corporations on the site. He thinks he will eventually create 250 full-time jobs or more.
What was first known as Aurora Wood Pellets is now the AWP Industrial Park.
“There’s going to be a huge impact for the region,” Mapes said while giving a tour of the site in June.
“I definitely think this is what’s going to kickstart the economy in the North.”
Mapes has been working on this project for a decade. After years of “showing people pictures of a drawing of what I thought it was going to be,” something is now actually happening at the site.
A rail siding, connected to CN Rail’s main line between Hay River and the south, began accepting loads of calcium chloride in the past two months. Trains hauling fuel are expected to begin using the siding in July, transferring fuel to trucks for delivery farther north.
The siding is the only part of the venture earning Mapes any revenue. So far, he says, the whole project has cost in excess of $20 million – mostly his money.
That means his pellet mill venture is really a logistics company right now.
“You’re saving 52 kilometres two ways” by dumping your freight at his rail siding and not Hay River, Mapes argued. (Mapes was the mayor of Hay River for one term, from 2015 to 2018. He owns industrial supplies firm Wesclean, established in Hay River by his father, John, in 1975.)
“So you have 104 kilometres there and you’re on the Yellowknife Highway right here,” he continued, pointing to the far side of his land, which opens onto Highway 1. The rail siding is four and a half kilometres long and can accommodate up to 150 cars.
Mapes says he wanders his property in the evenings, coming up with new ideas.
So far he’s planning a sawmill, a biomass power plant that’ll generate enough energy to power the whole site (with excess potentially sold to the NWT Power Corporation), an agricultural zone, an industrial park, and a gravel company, alongside the pellet mill and the rail yard.
“Ultimately, if you combine everything we’re looking at in the next five years, you’re going to see at least 250 full-time jobs here,” he claims, adding that doesn’t include seasonal work.
“It’s not a dream any more. It’s reality. And it’s an opportunity for the North.”
Joe Handley on the AWP Industrial Park site in June 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Joe Handley, the former NWT premier, has joined forces with Mapes in a bid to convince governments that the Enterprise site is an economic masterstroke in the making.
“I got involved because of Brad. I’d gotten to know him on a couple of other occasions and was impressed with his business ethics,” said Handley, who led the NWT from 2003 to 2007.
“Something had to be done in the South Slave – they don’t have mining, they don’t have oil or gas. We did a little brainstorming, thought wood pellets would be a good employer and the right thing to do environmentally to get people off fossil fuels, and we started there.”
Handley’s role is to pitch the project to governments, from the territorial government to municipalities and First Nations, and navigate bureaucratic channels that aren’t as familiar to Mapes.
He acknowledges Mapes’ plan for the lot hasn’t always received a warm welcome.
“People want to do things the way they always did them. Individuals, communities. That’s the comfortable way,” Handley said.
“That’s also the way governments tend to operate – people tend to look at why something new can’t work. We’ve had to put up with a fair bit of that.
“But this is a real gamechanger for the South Slave: 250 jobs is a lot of wage money coming in and a lot of businesses will benefit. It’s also an example of what an entrepreneur can do in the territory. That’s important to see. In their own way, other parts of the territory all have the same opportunities.”
A map of the AWP Industrial Park shows where Brad Mapes envisages various industries will develop in the coming years. The rail yard is already operational.
Despite Handley’s help, some nearby political leaders remain lukewarm.
For example, Mapes said the Hamlet of Enterprise had initially refused to reissue a business licence for his operations before eventually relenting and renewing the licence late last month.
Cabin Radio made multiple attempts to contact the Hamlet of Enterprise over the past month for this report. A person who answered the phone said only Enterprise’s senior administrator was authorized to speak “about Brad.” The administrator could not be reached.
Wendy Ross, at the West Point First Nation north of the project, said the nation could not yet comment as “there are still so many questions, lack of information, about the development.”
Good relations with neighbours are crucial for the project as it will rely on cooperation for the timber that will eventually become wood pellets.
Mapes wants wood to come first from Fort Resolution to the east and Fort Providence to the west, expanding later to Dehcho communities like Jean Marie River if demand rises.
“We’ve got strong agreements with Fort Resolution and Fort Providence,” Mapes said. “That’s going to be the biggest chunk of our harvest area.” He added the agreements call for sustainable harvesting of wood.
Mapes said all local groups are “on board and signed off” with his plans for biomass power generation.
“All the other stuff that we’ve got, probably in the next six months we’re going to have everybody signed in there. It’s been slowed down with Covid,” he said.
The rail yard currently stretches to 4.5 km. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
In Fort Resolution, Mayor Patrick Simon said he had not heard anything in a while about the project’s ramifications for his community in terms of job creation or other impacts – sentiments echoed by Lloyd Cardinal at the Fort Resolution Métis Government. Louis Balsillie of the Deninu Kue First Nation was not immediately available for comment.
The Hamlet of Fort Providence, Deh Gáh Got’îê First Nation, and Kátł’odeeche First Nation could not be reached for comment. Trevor Beck, the Hay River Métis president, said he had no comment.
However, the Town of Hay River gave its full support to the project.
“We’re very excited about it. This is a big opportunity to create employment and wealth in the South Slave region, and jobs specifically for Hay River,” said Peter Magill, the town’s tourism and economic development coordinator.
“I think it’s going to be a very productive and positive thing for Hay River. I’m sure by next year we’ll see some real marked changes in the growth of this project,” said Magill.
The Town of Hay River has factored the project’s expected growth into its own community plan – it’s one reason Hay River is forecasting a population boom in the coming years.
“We’re hoping to create some housing in the community as the year goes along,” said Magill, though he added Covid-19 was slowing those plans.
Brad Mapes at the AWP Industrial Park in June 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Mapes says he is used to people being at best uncertain about the project.
“It’s been 10 good, long years that we’ve been going at it. It’s been a struggle. The first five or six years was a struggle to try to get everybody to believe in what we’re trying to do,” he said.
“Like anybody else, I was tired of looking at myself talking about it and not seeing anything happen. Now that you can see stuff happening, this means a lot to me.”
He stressed his project has received no government funding, adding the NWT government had told him “it’s a great idea but we’re not interested.”
“We just kept on going forward,” he said. “Many people thought that we’d never get the rail siding done and operational, and it’s there.”
Mapes expects to grow the rail business in 2020, then focus on his biomass power generation plan in 2021. The wood pellet mill is earmarked for 2022.
As for customers, he says people from as far away as South Korea have expressed interest in buying his pellets.
“Obviously, we want to sell as much as we can in the North. The key is the rail siding,” he said.
“It opens the door for us to be able to export it. The Territories doesn’t have many items it can export, and we feel we can do it.
“Enterprise says that they’re the gateway of the North. This is going to be the gateway to the North.”
Sarah Pruys contributed reporting.