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Public hearing showcases MCC, proposed Askiy Asinjy hemp facility in Elk Point

ELK POINT – Elk Point and area residents had the opportunity to learn more about plans for a Municipal Controlled Corporation (MCC) to be set up for Askiy Asiniy’s hemp building block facility planned for Elk Point at a well-attended publ
Town of Elk Point CAO Ken Gwozdz (right) welcomed (right to left) Frog Lake First Nations Councillor Clinton Cross, Tam Tekle and Jesse Hahn of Natural Fibre Technology, Suzanne Cross and Frog Lake First Nations Councillor Michael Marty to the public hearing. / Vicki Brooker photo

ELK POINT – Elk Point and area residents had the opportunity to learn more about plans for a Municipal Controlled Corporation (MCC) to be set up for Askiy Asiniy’s hemp building block facility planned for Elk Point at a well-attended public hearing in the Northern Lights Library System boardroom last Monday. 

Several representatives from the Town of Elk Point, Frog Lake First Nation and Natural Fibre Technology were on hand to present an overview of the project, including: Elk Point Mayor Parrish Tung, Town Councillor Jason Boorse, Frog Lake First Nations Band Councillor Clifton Cross and Natural Fibre Technology’s Tam Tekle and Jesse Hahn. 

Tung explained that an MCC is a body set up to provide a service, in this case for the Elk Point Investment Corporation and Green Building Incorporated. Coun. Boorse said an MCC is highly regulated by the provincial government and the Municipal Government Act. “It’s a process to ensure we are doing things right.” 

Both he and the mayor will sit on the board of Askiy Asiniy, Boorse said, explaining that the establishment of the MCC keeps the Town safe from liabilities, “and it’s designed to make the town some money.” 

CAO Ken Gwozdz explained that to set up an MCC, “you must have a business plan, ours is very preliminary and will be updated, and you must have a public hearing. After the hearing, the Town will determine whether to proceed or not.” 

Frog Lake First Nation 

Clifton Cross explained that in Cree, “Askiy means earth, Asiniy means rock, and we want to create a sustainable product for building.” He introduced fellow band councillor Michael Marty, who said he was proud to represent the young people of the area and town and provide a youth perspective. Both Cross and Marty will represent Frog Lake First Nation (FLFN) on the Askiy Asiniy board. 

“We want to make sure that relationships with the area are well established, it’s us together… one of the great things to come from the pandemic,” Cross said, noting that when FLFN had 17 cases of Covid 19 in 2020, “Our chief asked how we could serve our people. We had oil and gas, we had barley but no way to process them… from that a legacy emerged.” 

Frog Lake has established multiple partnerships in recent years, including those with SAIT, NAIT and industry, and in the past two decades has enhanced life in the Nation with playgrounds, ball diamonds, a hockey arena, field house, recording studio and radio station, and in 2019, a new high school and a library, a travel centre and an emergency management centre, Cross said. This progress “doesn’t just help Frog Lake. Every time you tug a willow, it disturbs the soil below and stimulates its growth. This development will impact the people of Elk Point, too.” 

TTS/Natural Fibre Technology 

Jesse Hahn had a background in the oilfield and environmental reclamation before transitioning to hemp. He acquired a hemp license and was working with farmers when he met Tam Tekle. “I thought it was an opportunity to make money and do good things. The opportunities here are endless.” 

TTS/Natural Fibre Technology (NFT) was started in 1998 with a prudent venture development strategy, and Hahn emphasized. “We’re not pitching a mega facility, we’re looking to sustain the community socially, economically and environmentally.” 

A wood scientist and entrepreneur focused on the development of sustainable biocomposite technologies using hemp, Tekle’s background ranges from making a name for himself in the composite fibre panel industry to, his pilot manufacturing fiber mat business established in Drayton Valley in 2013 that is still operating, Hahn said. 

One challenge with the hemp industry at that time was primary processing capacity. In 2018, Hahn and Tekle developed a prototype hemp processing facility, creating their first commercial unit by 2019. By 2022, their second and third generation hemp decorticator was developed, which Hahn said will produce the same product as a full-scale processor at a tenth of the cost. Mitigating risk, the equipment can be moved temporarily or permanently to another location if there is a crop failure or other issues, Hahn said. 

“Our focus is on our values. We go by modularization, not $200 million dollar systems but $500,000 systems instead,” Tekle said. “It is our idea to build this market. There is no hemp industry, the supply chain is non-existent, so the market is accessible to farmers. As the industry grows, it will grow with the market.” 

With Askiy Asiniy, Tekle said, “The Town is the smallest part of the team, but it plays a critical role in the investment. In Drayton (Valley), we had to divest ourselves of that facility because the town did not have a role in it.” 

The three-part partnership involving TTS/NFT, FLFN and the Town of Elk Point “is strictly a business decision, with all three sheltered from any downfall. The lawyers have designed the structure to protect all three,” he said. 

The project’s startup, estimated to be in March 2024, would see 250 to 500 blocks produced per day, which will gradually increase to 250 to 500 blocks per hour, and will lead to the building of a commercial-sized plant in the former STRAD property, providing tax revenue for the Town. 

In addition to hemp straw, the process can also use municipal waste wood and cereal grain straw, “so the plant won’t be at risk” if there is a hemp crop shortage or crop failure. 

Tekle ended his presentation by noting that he is still working on the engineering “and this is a very preliminary projection.” Return on the investment is estimated at 10 to 20 years, “but our target is less than six years.” 

Funding outlined 

The mayor called on Gwozdz to explain the funding the Town is committing to the project through the MCC, and paying for the building in January, adding, “This is something we felt worthwhile to grab onto, how we, the Town, can give you the same service without income. This is one of a few projects we can give you good news on, because we still have to have discussions in closed sessions.” 

Gwozdz outlined the sources of funding for the project, with the 51 per cent major share coming from FLFN with $2.55 million in available grants, TTS/NFY with 29 per cent in the production equipment and intellectual property, and the Town with a $500,000, 10 per cent share. “To this point, we haven’t committed any funds. The property has been secured with a $25,000 deposit, that’s where we’re at.” 

“Town council is being smart,” Tekle said. “It’s a no brainer, we’re not asking for free land, we’re asking for partnership in a business with already a market.” 

“The benefit of having Frog Lake as a partner is the federal grants that are available, it’s an opportunity to use them in a good way,” Cross said. 

Questions and more questions 

Twelve individuals came forward with a wide range of questions regarding funding, potential effect on property taxes, the necessity for closed sessions at council meetings, the business plan for the MCC and the hemp blocks themselves, with answers coming from all the presenters, and some feeling that all their questions had not been answered before the time allowed ran out. 

A full rundown of the two-hour Q & A can be found on the Town of Elk Point’s YouTube channel - Town of Elk Point’s Regular Council Meetings 2023.12.11. 

Elk Point business owner Bonnie Smyl was the last to speak, and told the audience, “They (Askiy Asiniy) are not going to hurt any businesses, they are going to help our community by investing with each other, and that is what we as a community need.” 

In the regular council meeting that followed the three-hour hearing, council agreed to delay the motion to form the MCC until Jan. 8, 2024 

About the Author: Vicki Brooker

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