Twice last month I was quizzed by media whether the current downturn in the resource sector spells the end for northern B.C.’s economy – the implication being the north is destined for the dole if it can’t monetize its timber, rocks and energy.
I’ve written here before the region has no shortage of challenges: our economy is overly reliant on natural resources, our population is small, spread out and aging, and service delivery is being centralized in larger centres such as Prince George.
But to allege the region will become a welfare state without further industrial development is simplistic and certainly not entrepreneurial.
So if not natural resources, then what?
Low-cost real estate, a stable political environment and low annual ambient temperatures make the region an attractive destination for computer server farms.
The north’s high quality of life and year-round outdoor and arts and culture opportunities make it an ideal “lifestyle” destination for techpreneurs (Sparkgeo, a Prince George-based web mapping company with Silicon Valley clients, is located here for precisely this reason).
Prince George is home to the No. 1 undergraduate university in Canada – the University of Northern British Columbia – and a leader among small, research-intensive universities in Canada.
Yet one key barrier to the sector’s growth is infrastructure – our region lacks the broadband redundancy necessary to attract these investments, a fact rightly pointed out by Green MLA Andrew Weaver in February.
A small investment in additional redundancy between Prince George and Chetwynd or from Vancouver Island north to Prince Rupert would be a game-changer for the north.
Transportation and manufacturing
The Port of Prince Rupert and the Highway 16 road/rail line into the heart of North America combine to make a compelling competitive advantage as the global economy continues to shift toward Asia.
Deepwater ports in Stewart and Kitimat, as well as the inland port and airport in Prince George, are key transportation nodes that are naturally well situated for investment and growth.
The manufacturing and development of components and equipment for industrial sectors is an established industry in cities such as Prince George and Fort St. John.
This sector offers an area of investment growth: products manufactured in the north with northern expertise and exported internationally.
The key here is twofold:
•Identify infrastructure bottlenecks and barriers that limit the growth of trade and goods flow (some of these are physical, some are legal).
•Invest in existing manufacturers and exporters in the region that have a competitive advantage, providing them with the support they need to work “on” their businesses instead of “in” their businesses.
Northern B.C. has in droves what few destinations in the world can offer: unique, high-end visitor experiences that command top dollar.
The region has long been home to pricey fishing lodges, ranches and adventure tour operations that attract tourists from elsewhere in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
Where we’ve fallen down is marketing these experiences to ourselves – northerners have a tendency to vacation in Vancouver, Las Vegas, Maui and Puerto Vallarta.
Granted, sometimes nothing beats turquoise water and white sandy beaches, but if we persuade families to take one less vacation abroad each year and spend their dollars on an experience in the region, we can expand our tourism economy.
It’s the equivalent of a “shop local” travel experience.
All that said, we still need industrial projects.
Forestry, mining and energy will continue to be the backbone of our economy for years, if not decades. There’s nothing wrong with that. Our resource industries are resilient and innovative and offer the type of high-paying and rewarding careers that build wealth.
The key to our future comes down to this: saying “yes” to economic development projects more often than we say “no,” and reinvesting the wealth created by those developments in basic infrastructure and diversification initiatives.
So let’s get on with it.
Joel McKay (joel@northern development.bc.ca) is director, communications, at Northern Development Initiative Trust, a non-profit organization that stimulates economic growth throughout northern B.C.