At the time, the village was still reeling from the loss of the even-larger Weyerhaeuser sawmill on the same site that had tossed an even larger number of people out of work when it closed in 1999.
Then-Lumby Mayor Dave Simpson told Vernon’s Morning Star newspaper that the Paragon closure would reinforce the village’s attempts to diversify its economy.
“We can’t just depend on lumber,” Simpson said. That was in November 2004.
The Paragon plant went through various re-openings and closures in the following six years before finally falling dormant, but the sentiment remained.
A few weeks ago, medical marijuana company True Leaf broke ground on a 25,000-square-foot hydroponic grow operation that is expected to produce about 2,500 kilograms of dried medical marijuana each year.
It appears that the village is finally getting a taste of the economic diversification it has needed for so long, and it’s coming in a form that could likely be replicated in other small B.C. communities that need a boost, said Lumby’s current mayor, Kevin Acton.
“(The site) is a massive piece of property that was basically just a place to store wood chips and logs,” Acton told Postmedia. “It’s now going to have some really productive usage.”
The new grow-op will take shape on a 40-acre site at 1837 Shuswap Ave. It is expected to require about 150 people for the construction process and will employ 30 full-time and part-time staff when operations begin.
The project was initially planned for Vernon, located about 25 kilometres west of Lumby, said Darcy Bomford, the CEO of True Leaf, which he launched in 2013.
“We applied, but unfortunately Vernon didn’t have their zoning in place, so we kind of missed our spot in line,” he said in an interview. “Lumby was completely receptive to our application, supportive of our company and the people behind it, and they actually did have the zoning in the works. It was a good fit and there was a location available at the same time.”
He said Lumby’s village council adjusted their zoning to permit medicinal cannabis production under federal regulations.
“It’s about $10-million project,” Bomford said. “That’s for a 16,000-square-foot grow wing (that will be) anchored by a central hub that allows us to add other wings as we grow the business.”
He said the project could “conceivably” grow to cover a million square feet due to the large footprint of the site.
“Although I’m not sure that’s going to be feasible,” he said. “There’s a lot of production coming on stream in Canada. I suspect our focus will be on a smaller operation, and focused on high-quality medicinal product.”
He said the operations will also focus on separation and extraction of the active ingredients in the cannabis for various uses and treatments.
The project received no formal complaints or objections, Acton said — a point that was made by True Leaf’s chairman and former B.C. premier and Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt at the groundbreaking ceremony on March 2.
“I was talking to (Harcourt) about how we tried for a correctional facility a few years ago,” Acton said. (The prison project was eventually given to the South Okanagan community of Oliver).
“I basically had to cross picket lines to get into my office over the (prison) project, and in comparison … this has had virtually no formal complaints registered against it,” he said.
Once considered taboo in his circles, Acton said marijuana has clearly gone mainstream.
“All of a sudden we’re talking about it at regional district and council tables like it’s old news,” he said. “There has been a huge cultural shift.”
Logging job losses in Lumby over the past 15 years have numbered in the hundreds, Acton said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
“I believe there were five mills at one point, and I know Weyerhaeuser itself had several hundred employees,” he said.
He said the industrial cannabis industry that is being welcomed here could be replicated in other small Interior towns like Lumby.
“There are some real opportunities for some of these operations to find reasonably-priced land at reasonable taxes and to be able to come in and make something happen,” he said, noting that this particular business will be mail-order driven. “There is really no disadvantage to being a little bit further out of town.”
The mayor said he hopes the project will spur more commercial interest in the village, as well as much-needed housing development.
“We’re about the third-most reasonable place to buy in the Okanagan as far as land prices and opportunities go,” Acton said. “This is still one of those untapped markets that has probably a higher earning (potential) than some of the places that have already filled out and are peaking.”