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Overlooking Kootenay Lake

Reality Kootenay Style

This week I’ve encountered a few people who have high hopes for the future in this region, such high hopes in fact that I have to disagree, I don’t want to sound like a downer, but I like to season my arguments with a fair does of reality. While there aren’t too many places I’d rather be in the world than in the West Kootenays, there are a few things that need to be remembered about this place when one talks of economic development or population growth…

Geographically, we are in the middle of nowhere.

Overlooking Kootenay Lake

We see our fair share of tourists relative to the seasons, but unless one is travelling east-west between Vancouver and Calgary or up from the western states into BC, this part of the world has little tourism draw outside of a niche tourism market.

Now this isolation may be our downfall as society transitions away from cheap credit and cheap oil. Companies and industries will be reluctant to set up shop in a region where transportation is one of the greatest challenges, and the local markets are insignificant compared to the apparent global market. One apparent contradiction to this idea is Firebird Technologies, in Trail, BC that has a huge market share of a niche product, but it is clear that its choice of location is related to a supply of raw materials from the Teck smelter, also located in Trail.

An extended supply chain only makes sense when transportation is reliable, and here in the Kootenays, we are over 700km from the nearest cities with over a couple of hundred thousand people, surface travel in and out of the region requires either cross mountain passes, car ferries or international borders, the airports are small and have difficult approaches and are often fogged or clouded in. In short, if you come here, you’ve really got to want to be here. (Which we do!)

We are a forestry and mining industry based region

This region doesn’t have the sophistication of larger centres that have a large portion of the economy from city industries. The basis for almost all of the jobs in the region revolve around forestry or mining – and without these activities many of the supporting jobs would not be here either. For some history of the region, check out this wiki page on the Kootenay River.

The level of services in the region are distinctly rural

Whether one talks of high speed internet, medical facilities or transportation options, chances are, the level of service is far below that provided in larger cities. Despite many of these communities believing they are more urban than rural, the reality is quite different.

If these are the facts, what is the outcome?

One person told me that the only reason that the greater trail region wasn’t the next Kelowna (in terms of growth) was because the local developers did it all wrong over the past decade – but that there was still hope; the market would pick up again, people would start buying second homes, ski condos, and golf course properties. This is just some of what was said, but the general feeling was that the boom that saw thousands of new homes added to cities like Calgary and Kelowna was mishandled in the Kootenays.

From my perspective, without jobs, houses will not sell. I believe that the majority of the second home holiday property market in this part of the world is unlikely to pick up again in any significant way, my reasons are:

  1. Geographical Isolation. It is simply easier to get to other places.
  2. American Economy. The cheap credit Ponzi scheme economy is on its last legs. The American middle class is dissolving as we speak.
  3. Cost of Travel. As the price of gas increases, people are less willing to travel long distances, either by plane or car for holidays.

The Future?

What does the future look like for these communities? Without significant federal or provincial investment, one of two things must happen:

  1. Levels of service must decrease, or
  2. Cost of living in these communities must increase.

Paved roads, curb and gutter, sidewalks, street cleaning, snow plowing, arenas, swim centres, fancy city halls, water treatment facilities and water distribution systems are all examples of services or facilities that were not available in many rural communities sixty years ago. I’m not suggesting that we have to revert to a life similar to that of the turn of last century, however, the true cost of building and maintaining these facilities, and understanding that we may not continue to have the level of prosperity we enjoy today, should provide a context for decision making, especially in rural communities.

It is often stated that the third world just wants to be like the West, and those countries that are developing are on a trajectory of consumption and waste that is quickly catching up to our own. A similar consideration should be given to the desire of rural communities to be just like their City big brothers…

“If only we had a (new/better)… [insert as appropriate: (casino, marina, school, aquatic centre, airport, CostCo, Mega Mall, water park, multiplex cinema, golf course, ski hill, hospital)]… we’d be able to attract more [insert as appropriate: (tourists, investment, businessmen, families, young people, elderly people, sporty people, rich people)]”.

These simplistic beliefs based on fairytale assumptions mistake the earnest wistfulness of the community, politicians or developers for realism. There are opportunities in the Kootenays, however, they are likely at the community and human scale, which is a story that many people around here just don’t want to hear.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

4 thoughts on “Reality Kootenay Style

  1. Perhaps we are ‘The Best Dam City’ … (located as we are a ‘The Cross Roads of the Kootenays’) … and what better place to be ‘Hooked on … Fairy Tale Assumptions’ then a ‘Happily Ever After … ‘ Community … like Castlegar!

    My suggestion — think LOCAL — think Sustainable — grow, eat, shop, invest, travel LOCAL — do what we can to build resilience into our Community … with inclusive environmental, social, cultural, & economic justice as target parameters to serve the ENTIRE Community.

    Raymond Koehler

    619 – 9th Avenue,
    Castlegar, BC V1N 1M5

    250.304.2157

  2. “One person told me that the only reason that the greater trail region wasn’t the next Kelowna (in terms of growth) was because the local developers did it all wrong over the past decade ”

    For myself, I have never wanted our area to be like Kelowna, let alone the Lower Mainland.
    I have never wanted our area to be “discovered”.

  3. Love this post, Mike! I agree with all of it.

    Two things stuck out:

    “One person told me that the only reason that the greater trail region wasn’t the next Kelowna (in terms of growth) was because the local developers did it all wrong over the past decade…” Seriously? BS! The developers saw the limited potential here and knew better than to start anything.

    “…this part of the world has little tourism draw outside of a niche tourism market…” I had to laugh when I read this because it’s so true, but people around here seem so convinced otherwise almost to the point of being brainwashed.

    Also, as we saw with the Owe-lympics and our own drier winter here, investing in a weather-based venture like a ski resort, and its ancillary services seems to me to be way too risky nowadays. Less snow = less people, simple as that (which is fine with me).

  4. Hi Mike,
    A little off topic with this comment placed here… but reference my earlier comment of May 28, 2010, above.
    ***
    I find this unfathomable & unbelieveable.

    ***
    Subject: Getting Value for our $43,000.00 + Branding Dollars –
    Consistency in Messaging

    ‘The Editor – The Castlegar Source

    I really do not understand. What is this?
    For the second time, in very recent history, a Mystery Ad for the City of Castlegar–

    The Castlegar Source – Friday, June 11th.
    http://c3.openx.org/11f1472ac1e5d25137ae34323a1e3cae.gif

    What happened to the City’s ‘happily ever after’ ‘investment of more than $43,000.00 Taxpayer Payers’ dollars in the Twist Marketing’ Branding exercise … ?

    “Capital of the West Kootenay’s” — ??? — where did that come
    from … ??? What happened to “happily Ever After …”? And who ‘dusted off’ the Heraldic Crest …again! Where is the new ‘river logo’ that we bought and paid for?

    Does this ad pre-date,’Crossroads of the Kootenays’ ‘Best Dam City’
    ‘Hooked on …’ … effective Marketing … ?

    Where is the City getting it’s Marketing advice from?
    Has anyone heard of the concept of ‘consistency in messaging’?

    This is REALLY backwoods ‘amateur hour’! … and reflects very poorly on the Community.

    I continue “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered”!

    Raymond Koehler

    619 – 9th Avenue,
    Castlegar, BC V1N 1M5

    250.304.2157

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