Wielding a pair of sharp scissors, Shannon MacInnis has little difficulty getting people to talk.
Barber chair banter usually covers the weather, personal stories, politics and the economy. At the Tartan Blade Barbershop in the Highland Square Mall in New Glasgow, the MacInnis patrons often talk about the old TrentonWorks plant and its future prospects, especially since their barber happens to be the recently re-elected mayor of the Town of Trenton.
“We get all walks of life coming into our barbershop so we hear every story and every angle on TrentonWorks and every other business in the county,” MacInnis said.
Since the 135-year-old plant closed in February 2015, many of MacInnis’s customers have packed up their grooming needs and moved to Alberta to pursue full-time work.
“People would love to be back this way and staying here with a good-paying job,” MacInnis said. “Most of them tell me that all the time. They would love to stay here. They would even take a cut in pay from what they were making out west to come back home but there is just not enough steady work.”
In its heyday of building railcars alongside the East River, TrentonWorks employed more than 2,500 people, many of them in the skilled trades. The Greenbrier Companies took over the massive 700,000-square-foot facility that sits on 43 hectares of land in 1995 but shut down production in May 2007 because of a lack of orders.
The plant lay dormant for about three years while companies headquartered in Spain, India and elsewhere considered buying it. In 2010, Daewoo Shipping & Marine Engineering of South Korea invested in the plant and retooled it to build windmill towers.
DSME Trenton ceased operations in February, citing a lack of wind tower orders. The company was placed in receivership when the province recalled a $32-million government loan, part of a provincial investment in the company that totalled $56 million and gave the province 49 per cent ownership.
The plant that once afforded Trenton and its nearly 3,000 residents about $300,000 annually in property taxes still employs a chief operating officer and four unionized personnel to complete plant, facility and equipment maintenance.
“That’s a big portion of our budget,” said MacInnis, who was elected mayor in October after holding the town’s top job from 2005 to 2008. “Since the government is still the primary owner, we are getting partial taxes. It’s still a facility and they still have to pay a certain amount of taxes, not the full tax that would be paid from an operating business.”
An operating business is exactly what receiver PricewaterhouseCoopers, on behalf of government, is interesting in attracting to the sprawling factory site.
The receiver rejected all bids for the property recently and said that it is to begin another round to consider new bids.
In a November bankruptcy report to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, the receiver said that “none of the bids met the objective of the sales process — to identify prospective purchasers who would be interested in acquiring these with the intent to commence operations, investing to create jobs and bringing value to the local community.”
The receiver worked off a list of 268 possible purchasers, 56 of which were in Canada and 103 in the U.S. The receiver requested and accepted bids, with a June deadline, under two strategies. The preferred plan was to sell all the assets as a going-concern business and the other less attractive alternative was to liquidate assets while trying to find a buyer for the site and the buildings.
Eventually, there were three bids considered from companies that expressed interest in buying the complete package — the buildings, the nine parcels of land and all the assets, which included three parcels of equipment.
RSM Financial Group, based in Arlington, Texas, offered $3 million and promised to bring up to 200 new jobs in manufacturing and sales. The company proposed manufacturing work on systems to convert waste to energy and waste to water, to construct concrete walls and floors and to produce rolled-steel roofing.
Langille Holding of Vancouver and Bayshore Groups of St. Catharines, Ont., each offered $1 for the facility, property and equipment. Langille was to manufacture, construct and lease unspecified products and Bayshore was interested in railcar manufacturing and servicing along with the construction of large silos.
Those three bids were rejected because they did not include the required $100,000 deposit.
To put the second strategy of liquidation into play, the receiver prepared a list of all equipment, inventory and movable assets.
Four bids that included estimated recovery amounts of $6.8 million to $7 million were received but rejected.
“The government does not want to piecemeal it out,” MacInnis said. “They want to keep it intact and they want it to operate as a business. They don’t want any type of liquidation. Since they (government) are the primary stakeholder, they get to call the shots. Even though the receiver gives them suggestions on what they should or shouldn’t do, in the end the government is going to make the call.”
Still, Pictou Centre MLA Pat Dunn worries that nothing is happening with the property.
“I am concerned that a potential buyer hasn’t surfaced yet,” the Progressive Conservative member said. “I understand that the receiver, PricewaterhouseCoopers, is doing their due diligence. Although they didn’t accept any of the bids that were offered, I’m sure there was good reason not to.”
Dunn hails from Trenton and comes from a long line of TrentonWorks employees.
He put in a brief stint in his late teens working there and his dad worked for 46 years in the machine shop.
“We need an industry to deliver a long-term sustainable future. The former employees have the skills and experience to produce a good reliable product. It is to get the right buyer to be able to come up with a solid business plan where they will be sustainable. In an aging plant like that, it’s a difficult task.”
Dunn doesn’t think the size of the plant should be intimidating to prospective buyers.
“They could look at multiple buyers that can share the space,” Dunn said. “It’s a huge facility.”
Dunn said he was disappointed that Daewoo’s retooling included what he called stripping the plant of the railcar-constructing equipment that was dismantled, sold or shipped off to scrapyards.
“I was extremely disappointed when that happened because I really felt that with the size and space available to the new company coming in, Daewoo, they could manage and do what they wanted to do with the wind towers and still have a viable, transitional part of the business in which they could swing over and build some cars when the demand was there. There is equipment there right now that is capable of building the tank cars, the metal shells and other structures that require that sort of modification.”
In its report, the receiver said it will continue discussions with interested parties and seek further offers from prospective and current bidders.
A third report from the receiver will be delivered next month.
In the meantime, both MacInnis and Dunn remain optimistic and emphasize the importance of a working plant to the area.
“I’m a glass half full kind of guy and you always have to think that something is around the corner, just waiting,” MacInnis said. “Basically, if somebody could come up with a good business plan, government would support it and we’d see somebody in there sooner rather than later.”
MacInnis said government is tired of giving handouts to companies who pull up stakes when public funding dries up. But he said it is in everybody’s best interest to have the plant up and running.
“It is like the backbone of Pictou County," he said. "This is the meat-and-potatoes people in Pictou County. They are not making the most money in the county but they are making average money and they spend their money here. It’s a booming industry to keep in Pictou County because it keeps Pictou County running.”
Dunn said he holds out hope of soon seeing several hundred people filing through the plant gates daily.
“The thing about the Trenton facility over the last 100 years, people lived in Pictou County, some travelled from Antigonish, Guysborough and Colchester,” he said. “But the people who lived here spent their money here and it was good for the all-around economy. They bought their groceries and their cars. When TrentonWorks was thriving, you could really notice it in the community, the small businesses, the corner stores and gas stations and so on.
“I always believe that out there globally there is someone interested in investing in a facility like that and to begin operating it again.”