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Go west, young man

Glenn Rogers appreciated his small-town life in the Maritimes. But the lure of big dollars in Alberta was too strong to resist after his employer of 18 years shut down.

"I didn't really look outside the mill until I was given no choice," says Rogers, who worked as an instrument technician at the Minas Basin Pulp and Power paper mill until Friday, when it closed.

The manufacturer of recycled paper products employed 135 people in Hantsport, a town of 1,160. About 40 of them were offered jobs at CKF Inc., a local paper and foam plate maker and the mill's sister company.

Rogers, 41, is now working at the Kearl Lake oilsands project in northern Alberta earning between $60 and $70 per hour, double the wages of what he was offered in Nova Scotia.

"You have a family to feed," he said. "You go where you have to go and you have to do what you have to do."

The closure of the 85-year-old Minas Basin mill is the latest blow for one-industry towns that have seen the economy pass them by, adding to the westward migration of skilled workers and draining the coffers of struggling communities.

It is the third paper mill to shut down in Nova Scotia in a year.

In June, Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products (TSX:RFP) announced the closure of its paper mill formerly known as Bowater in Brooklyn, N.S., throwing 320 people out of work. That came despite a $50-million provincial government offer to the company, $23.75 million of which was spent to buy about 10,000 hectares of land.

The former NewPage Port Hawkesbury paper mill in Point Tupper, N.S., resumed operations in October under a new name after it was bought by Vancouver-based Pacific West Commercial Corp. The mill has roughly half the workers it once employed, and that came after a $124.5-million assistance package from the provincial government.

The closures in Atlantic Canada aren't relegated to paper mills. Just this past Friday, High Liner Foods Inc. (TSX:HLF) shuttered a fish plant in the southern Newfoundland town of Burin, saying the facility was expensive to operate because of its isolated location and distance from the marketplace.

About 140 people lost their jobs in the community of 2,400.

As the plants close, the small-town dream fades for many, says Arne Jensen, a former construction electrician at the Minas Basin site.

"It's unbelievable how much money can be made leaving home," he said.

The 33-year-old has also worked in the West, and said it isn't difficult for a skilled tradeperson to quickly embrace the interprovincial commuting lifestyle.

"There are a lot of guys from Liverpool and Bowater. They're out there in Alberta. That's where you have to go."

Hantsport Mayor Robbie Zwicker, an engineer at CKF, says he is determined to keep working in his town, despite its challenges.

"I don't want to become like a lot of my colleagues, doing the Alberta dream. I think it's just savage," he said.

"My province has invested good money into my health care and my education. It's a shame to turn our tax dollars over to the province of Alberta only to return to retire and further burden the local economies."

As mayor, he faces the immediate task of trying to make up for a $270,000 drop in local tax revenue, about 10 per cent of the town budget, due to the Minas Basin mill closure.

"The small-town model in this province and probably many others may be broken and may be due for a relook," he says.

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