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From pulp to pot, Liverpool reinvents itself

An aerial shot of Aqualitas Inc.’s production facility near Liverpool. The company currently employs 50 employees in Queens County but has its head office in Bedford.
An aerial shot of Aqualitas Inc.’s production facility near Liverpool. The company currently employs 50 employees in Queens County but has its head office in Bedford.

At a time when rural Nova Scotia is struggling, Aqualitas Inc.’s budding operation is providing jobs for the people of Queens County.

But the impact of the cannabis company goes beyond employment.

For years, the Bowater Mersey pulp mill was the largest employer in Liverpool and the surrounding area. When the mill closed its doors in 2012, the community lost hundreds of jobs and their identity as a mill town.

Now, there’s the opportunity for Liverpool to reinvent itself as a cannabis town.

“We’ve hired a lot of local folks, some that used to work at the old Bowater plant,” said Aqualitas co-founder and CEO Myrna Gillis. “That is a profound part of the rural economic story.”

The company, which currently employs 50 people in nearby Brooklyn, has set up in a renovated warehouse on the former mill site.

“We’ve taken up a very significant position in the park and obviously have ambitions to expand production there,” said Gillis.

And the excitement from the community has continued to grow given Aqualitas was recently awarded their cannabis sales licence from Health Canada.

Liverpool native Kathy Grezaud, who returned home from Ontario to work for the company, said Aqualitas has provided a spark that’s been missing since the mill shut down.

“You can’t help but create a community around that operation,” she said.

“If you’re the largest employer in the town of these people, you can’t help but become a cannabis town.”

In addition to allowing the company to sell cannabis on the domestic, international and medical markets, the licence will create more jobs.

Grezaud, who works as a senior administrator and co-ordinator, said the company could hire another 30 to 40 people by year’s end.

“People are looking for something to come alive again. We get applications from people who’ve gone away and really want to return,” she said.

David Dagley, the mayor for the Region of Queens Municipality, said people are just happy to have work.

When asked how the cannabis company had been received by locals, he said it was just like any other business.

“There’s been no concerns from the community,” he said. “We are really pleased to have Aqualitas.”

In fact, Grezaud said people are fascinated when she tells them where she works.

“It’s funny because some people say: ‘Oh, the weed plant.’ That’s the way they refer to it,” she said.

The revival of the old mill site has also been helpful for small businesses.

Linda Smith, Grezaud’s sister and the owner of Memories Cafe, opened her business just three weeks before Bowater closed.

“The mill had been struggling for ages by the time we decided to open the cafe but to have the hammer come down within our first month of operation was very scary,” said Smith.

She said the atmosphere in town was gloomy as people decided whether to stay or go elsewhere for work.

However, the narrative has changed with several new businesses opening around Liverpool; the cafe has also done well.

“We can really feel the buzz in the air and yes, that certainly comes from the optimism people have for the development happening in the region,” said Smith.

In addition to being a quality employer, Gillis said the company’s products are also noteworthy.

“We have a Clean Green Certification. We’re the first Canadian company to have that,” she said.

The certification designates Aqualitas’ cultivation practices — both soil-based and aquaponic — as organic and sustainable under a set of international standards.

Gillis said the certification will give the company an advantage when its products hit the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. shelves sometime in the next month; studies show consumers want local, organic products.

“It’s a huge advantage in the sense of differentiation and it’s also meeting a consumer demand we know exists,” she said.

But when asked how it felt to provide gainful employment in rural Nova Scotia, Gillis said that might be the most exciting development.

“It’s something I have great pride in,” she said.

Smith added that there’s a sense of pride for herself and Grezaud considering their father worked at the Bowater mill for over 30 years.

“To know that research and growth is bringing life back to that old mill and creating jobs along the way is just absolutely incredible to me,” she said.

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