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Food Innovation Centre in Chilliwack shuts down

The Food Innovation Centre in Chilliwack, which opened just a year ago with federal and provincial funding, is shutting down at the end of this week.

The four staff at the centre received notice that their jobs end Friday, and FICBC CEO Mike Leslie said his job will continue — on a part-time basis — only until the end of March.

“It’s unfortunate, trying to get a startup (company) going in less than a year, and then having its funding cut,” he said.

Leslie said the centre serves “a broad range” of food-related clients, from individual farmers who need help getting their produce to market to larger companies dealing with regulatory issues.

The centre currently has 130 clients, and Leslie said his part-time job will include finishing up those contracts.

On Wednesday, the B.C. Agriculture Ministry announced a $262,500 grant for the centre, but Leslie said that is old money and does nothing to help the current situation.

“There must be an election coming,” he said. “They’re reporting things that are a year old.”

B.C. Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick said he was not aware of the grant announcement.

But he explained that the ministry could not approve the total $645,000 requested by the centre for 2012-2013 because its five-year business plan “relied almost exclusively on taxpayer dollars” and the centre needed to find other funding sources to cover its operational costs.

He said the ministry approved $345,000, about half the requested funding, and informed the centre of the reduced amount in April so they could look for other funding sources.

The centre was started with $400,000 from the Growing Forward fund, a joint federal-provincial program aimed at supporting business development, innovation, food safety and sustainability.

Letnick said FICBC could still apply to the Growing Forward II fund, “but they will still need to come up with other sources for operational costs.”

He said the ministry will continue to fund capital costs of “innovation projects” in B.C., but not “administrative” costs.

Dave Eto, president of the BC Food Processors Association, did not return a Progress call for comment, but in a news release the association said if the FICBC shuts down, “the food processing industry, part of the number one economic driver of the economy, will be the loser.”

He said in a letter to Letnick that the centre “must have adequate support from government to fund their operations for the first critical years of existence and (for) the transition from startup to commercialization.”

“While the Ag Minister and the Premier continue to make speeches featuring the $3.5 billion in new sales and the 20,000 jobs to be created through innovation in the agrifood sector by 2017, it seems meeting these targets is now even farther away,” he said in the release.

NDP agriculture critic Lana Popham could not be reached for comment, but Chilliwack-Fraser MLA Gwen O’Mahony said the centre had a “very good” business plan that would see it become “eventually self-reliant — but it takes time.”

She said the NDP caucus supported the FICBC, and without it, she believes B.C. will be “lagging behind” other provinces which do have similar innovation centres.

“This is one of those issues that had we been in Victoria (in legislative session), we would have raised it in Question Period,” she said.

rfreeman@theprogress.com

twitter.com/paperboy2

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