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City fights to preserve dry-dock facility.

The city and Thunder Bay Harbour Commission are fighting to preserve the Lakehead's only dry-dock ship repair facility and the 30 jobs that go with it.

The dry-dock's owner, the Port Arthur Ship Building Company Ltd. (Portship), plans to close the facility and fill it in with cement next June. This plan means the loss of 30 full-time jobs and an end to Thunder Bay's ability to operate as a full-service port.

Portship's parent company, Canadian Shipbuilding and Engineering Limited (CSE), decided to consolidate its dry-dock repairs at its Port Wellar shipyard in St. Catharines after losing out on a $500-million federal contract to build 12 mine sweepers.

The plan to upgrade Port Wellar hinges on the approval of $11 million in funding from both the provincial and federal governments under the Shipbuilding Industry Rationalization Plan.

Portship's general manager Wes Allan reports that no funding has been committed, but the federal government has indicated it will provide funding if the province also supports the project.

"A number of $9 million (from the federal government) has been bandied about, but there has been no commitment that I am aware of," he says.

According to Allan, the province is expected to make a decision this month.

CSE president Stewart Thoms has claimed that it is impossible to operate both dry-dock facilities while the laker fleet is shrinking.

"We've been looking at this for a long time," adds Allan. "We've done a bit of forecasting, and it is clear to me that the laker fleet will not increase and the grain through Thunder Bay is decreasing."

Use of the dry-dock facilities has also been on the decline. Currently only 20 per cent of all ship repairs require the use of a dry-dock.

However, the harbor commission is asking Portship not to fill in the dry-dock in the hope that it can find another company to operate the facility.

"We have asked if they would sell it and they said no because they don't want competition (for Port Wellar)," harbor commission general manager Cy Cook reports.

"It (the closure) doesn't mean much economically to the port, but we are very concerned because it reduces our attraction to sea-going vessels," he explains.

Thunder Bay Mayor David Hamilton adds that Port Wellar should not be upgraded at Thunder Bay's expense. He has met with federal MP Michael Wilson to voice this opinion.

Robert Paterson, executive vice-president of N. M. Paterson and Sons Limited of Thunder Bay, says the loss of the local dry-dock will only pose a minor inconvenience to his firm's shipping operation.

"It was a convenient to have a dry-dock (in Thunder Bay). Now we will have to go elsewhere," he says, adding that his firm will likely seek a facility in the U.S.

For Portship itself, the loss of the dry-dock is not a crippling blow to the Thunder Bay operation's viability. The company has been diversifying its operations for the past 30 years and now counts on its engineering division to supply one-third of its total business.

Portship's engineers have been involved in the design of pressure vessels used by forestry and mining companies to store pressurized materials.

In addition, Portship is the only company in northwestern Ontario certified by the Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations to design and manufacture ASME boilers.
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Title Annotation:Thunder Bay, Ontario
Author:Brown, Stewart
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Aug 1, 1992
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