A luxurious cruise ferry that boasts a sailor's pub, casino and dance floor is on its way from the Baltic Sea to Kitimat, on B.C.'s north coast, where it will help relieve a growing housing crisis.
Joanne Monaghan, mayor of the booming resource town, said she's looking forward to seeing the gleaming, 11-deck ship tied up in a working port that is more commonly used by bulk freighters and barges.
"It's desperate," she said of the housing situation in the town. Kitimat may soon see its population of about 9,000 residents double if several proposed liquefied natural gas projects go ahead.
"We'll probably have anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 workers in the long run," she said.
"The vacancy rate right now is .04 per cent," said Ms. Monaghan, who was busy Tuesday trying to find a new home for a woman who was being forced out of her apartment by soaring rents. "With the ship coming in, it will probably alleviate things a little bit because some of the [workers] are staying in the apartments and some of them are renting houses. They will probably go to the cruise ship now."
Ms. Monaghan said the inflow of well-paid workers has jacked up rents in Kitimat, and many locals can't find, or can't afford, accommodations.
"These apartments that are being rented out now to these workers are really very [expensive]. They are $1,200 to $1,400 a month because the workers have it. … None of these elderly people on a pension can afford that," she said. "I don't know what to do. I'd put them all up at my house if I could, but I don't have room."
Rio Tinto Alcan is bringing in the cruise ferry, Silja Festival, for a nine-month stay to provide accommodations for temporary workers involved in a $3.3-billion modernization and expansion of its smelter.
The ship will house 500 workers, said Colleen Nyce, manager of communications for Rio Tinto Alcan, and there will be an on-board staff of about 100. Most of those positions – ship cooks, cleaning staff – will be filled in B.C., but the ship will come with an outside crew of about 20 people.
Rio Tinto Alcan already has a work camp in Kitimat with 1,700 beds, but Ms. Nyce said that is at capacity and workers have been renting places in town, where vacancies are getting increasingly hard to find.
"Over this past year and a bit, we've seen an increase in activity with other projects and realized as we ramp up that we are not going to have enough room in the town," she said. "The town folk are already feeling the pain a bit, and we've heard that. This is something we just pulled out of our back pocket and started working on really quickly."
The 170-metre ship, run by Tallink Group as a cruise ferry in the Baltic Sea, is being called the Delta Spirit Lodge for its Canadian assignment.
Ms. Monaghan said that name reflects the history of Kitimat because 60 years ago, workers brought in to help build the original Alcan smelter were housed on a ship called the Delta King.
"It was an old paddle wheeler and that's where a lot of the accommodations were. That ship is now in California as a restaurant," she said.
Ms. Monaghan said there are already a lot of workers in the community and many more will come if the LNG projects go ahead.
Kitimat LNG, LNG Canada and Douglas Channel Energy Project all have proposed building new projects in Kitimat.
The plans, which have not yet been completed, would see pipelines built to Kitimat from the gas fields in northeast B.C. Gas would be processed at plants on the waterfront and loaded on LNG bulk carriers for shipment to markets largely in Asia.
THE SILJA FESTIVAL
Owner: The Tallinn-based Tallink Grupp, operator of 18 ferries on several routes in the northern Baltic Sea under the Tallink and Silja Line brands.
Previous service: Stockholm-Riga; Stockholm-Turku, Finland
Length: 171 metres
Passenger cabins: 588
Restaurants and cafés: 4
Other amenities: Children's playroom, sauna, 12-room conference centre on the 8th deck
Source: Company website