The curious economic development example of Dorchester, NB

My go to book when I want a snapshot of what went on in New Brunswick in a specific year or during a particular administration is Richard Wilbur’s New Brunswick: An Annual Review, 1960-2006.  Unfortunately it only covers the period between 1960 and 2006.  It would be great to have a version going back to the early 20th Century and a version keeping relatively fresh.

For those who think about the province’s economy, Wilbur covers most major economic issues throughout the period starting with a flurry of projects in 1960-61 including legislation to expand the Saint John Shipbuilding and Drydock Company and the establishment of the Rothesay Paper Corporation.  Premier Robichaud went to Europe to hustle new business.  Of course the Chignecto Canal never really got off the ground and despite “a tremendous dry campaign spearheaded by the Baptists and endorsed by the Canadian Temperance Federation” the government agreed to allow “liquor [to] be sold
by the glass in taverns, hotels, hunting camps, and railway trains”.  Wilbur’s book is chock full of these little anecdotes.  You might learn a little about your province.

I have been thinking lately about the little hamlet of Dorchester, New Brunswick a short drive from Moncton. I have a friend who is looking at potential economic development opportunities in the village.  In Wilbur’s review, his comments on Dorchester go from positive to neutral to downright negative.

In 1964, Dorchester first shows up as the site of the Westmorland Chemical Park at Dorchester Cape which was described as “a 100-acre industrial park established by the New Brunswick Development Corporation” to initially house a “$4 million fertilizer plant would be built”.  About 400 men would be employed to produce the fertilizer from Trinidad ammonia.

In 1965, Wilbur indicates government had developed a chemical fertilizer plant and invested in “initial facilities, including a floating dock” but then sold it to a Winnipeg firm.

Just two years alter in 1967, Wilbur cites a Daily Gleaner editorial, by the government’s ‘most persistent critic’ the publisher of the Gleaner, for the “whole confused
story of the indirect liabilities” including the Fundy Chemical plant at Dorchester Cape.

In 1971, Wilbur’s description of the Dorchester economic development efforts has turned sour as he describes it as the “more controversial Liberal venture, the notorious Dorchester Cape industrial park” and says there is only one firm in operation.

By 1974, the vision for Dorchester had completely crumbled.  Wilbur discusses the “vacant buildings of Westmorland Chemical Park, itself a multimillion dollar fiasco begun with much fanfare early in the Robichaud era” and states that James Addison, president of the NB Development Corporation, the Stephen Lund of the time,  announced “the sale of the Westmorland Chemical plant and its large storage tank to an American firm. He thought the new buyers would dismantle it and move the equipment out of the province. He also admitted that the Development Corporation had taken a loss of $8.7 million on the park.”

Other than a person’s hunger strike at the jail, there is no other mention of Dorchester in the almost 50 years’ worth of review.

The Dorchester area over the years had been a site for mining.  It played a role as a ‘port’ for ships coming up the Petitcodiac River.  It could have easily been built out as cottage country for city folk – there are beautiful waterfront locations out there that have never been developed.

dorchester

Dorchester has an interesting history.  An early discussion of that history can be found here (interestingly a Wilbur was the second English family to settle in the area).   You have to subscribe to get the full book.

The recent history of Dorchester confirms my view that the best and most durable economic development is led by local stakeholders.  We can and should attract national and international firms here but in the long run the only people who have a true interest in the area are local people.  Any community in New Brunswick waiting around for the provincial or federal government to swoop in and save the day might be waiting a long time.

Provincial and federal governments have an important role to play but in my experience local leaders – government, business, community need to step up first, cast a vision, and put their own skin in the game.  I’m not naive.  I realize that government has been pivotal in the success of certain communities over time – think about the moving of CN Shops to Moncton in the early 1900s – but for the most part local communities need to take the lead.

A process admittedly complicated in New Brunswick when there are only 11 municipalities with a population of 10,000 or more and only three with 50,000 or more.

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