Sweet victory: Smiths Falls leaders savour Hershey’s return to Eastern Ontario town

Hershey stock image

While Canopy Growth’s announcement that it’s selling the former Hershey plant in Smiths Falls back to the company that made it famous might feel like deja vu all over again, Sean Lawrence says the community is not the same place the chocolate-maker left in 2008.

“The attitude in Smiths Falls is completely different than it was 15 years ago,” says Lawrence, the president of the Smiths Falls Chamber of Commerce.

A financial adviser who’s been part of the Eastern Ontario town’s business scene for decades, Lawrence remembers how deflated residents felt when Hershey pulled out of the “Chocolate capital of Canada,” relocated the production facility to Mexico and left more than 400 local residents jobless.

OBJ360 (Sponsored)

It was one of many economic body blows the community 60 kilometres south of Ottawa suffered in a disastrous stretch in the early 2000s.

The same year that Hershey pulled up stakes, Stanley Tools shuttered its manufacturing plant in the town, throwing 175 people out of work. The 2009 closure of the Rideau Regional Centre, a health-care facility that employed even more workers than the Hershey plant, followed. Five years later, Shorewood Packaging closed its operations in Smiths Falls, leaving about two dozen people without jobs.

“When we lost Hershey’s, we lost Rideau Regional and Stanley Tools, it was pretty tough around here,” Lawrence says.

>But he says times have changed.

The abandoned Hershey factory turned out to be the right place for a fledgling pot producer that became known as Canopy Growth to set up shop. At the height of the cannabis boom in 2018, Canopy employed 1,800 people in Smiths Falls, triggering a construction boom and helping revitalize the local economy.

Even though the company has since fallen on hard times and now employs fewer than 200 people in the town, Lawrence says the community was in a good position to weather the storm when Canopy announced in February it was selling the former Hershey factory and cutting 350 jobs.

“People were still upbeat because they just knew that somebody was going to come in and take the plant,” he says.

>Mayor Shawn Pankow agrees that Hershey’s departure left a void in the community that extended far beyond simple dollars and cents and took years to fill.

‘Big part of our identity’

“It was a big part of our identity, a big part of our brand,” he says. “Our water tower had Hershey’s (name) on it, they ran annual track meets, they were a big employer and had a major profile in town.”

Like Lawrence, he says he wasn’t surprised that the facility attracted a high-profile buyer. Canopy Growth invested hundreds of millions of dollars into turning the 700,000-square-foot building into a state-of-the-art facility that rivals any industrial site in the province, Pankow says.

“I was confident it wasn’t going to take long before it would be occupied again, but it happened faster than we would have anticipated,” he explains.

While rumours had been circulating for months that Hershey would return to occupy the building once again, nothing was confirmed until this week, Pankow says. He says the confectionery giant is still figuring out its plan for the facility, including what exactly it will be used for and how many workers it will employ.

“The discussions so far have been very high-level,” he says. “It’s very premature and preliminary at this stage, but we’re confident they’ll become a major employer and once again be a major player in our community.”

Lawrence says he’s optimistic that no matter what Hershey ends up doing with the plant, the chocolate-maker will be in Smiths Falls for the long haul.

“I don’t think they took (the decision to leave in 2008) very lightly,” he says. “They were always a great corporate citizen, regardless of what happened, so I don’t think they’re coming back with the intent of, ‘Oh, we’ll try it there and pull out again in five or six years.’”

Hershey’s return re-establishes a corporate connection to Smiths Falls that stretches back 63 years – and began as a result of happenstance.

It all started in the summer of 1960, when then-Smiths Falls police chief Reg Wride pulled over a car bearing Pennsylvania licence plates as it entered the town.

Economic fixture

“It just happened to be the habit of our chamber of commerce back then to try to greet newcomers into our community every summer,” Pankow explains. “When chief Wride found out it was actually a team from Hershey that was looking for a location for a facility in Ontario, he put them in touch with our chamber of commerce, who sort of wined them and dined them and sold them on the town.”

The pitch worked. By the end of 1962, Hershey had built a 200,000-square-foot production plant, which shipped its first products early the following year.

For the next four and a half decades, Hershey was an economic pillar of the community. At its peak, the company’s factory employed more than 750 workers and drew nearly 450,000 annual visitors to its chocolate shop.

“Here we are, 60 years later, and after a 15-year departure, they’re back,” Pankow says. “I don’t think anyone ever expected them to return.

“Had Hershey not located here and not left, Canopy never would have located here, not to the extent they did. When you think of the significance of that moment of time, who would have thought it would lead to such an incredible investment in our town?”

He echoes Lawrence’s assertion that while the community of 10,000 has suffered its share of economic hardship, it’s stronger for it.

“We’re in a much different place. We’re much more resilient than we were 15 years ago.”

Get our email newsletters

Get up-to-date news about the companies, people and issues that impact businesses in Ottawa and beyond.

By signing up you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. You may unsubscribe at any time.