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.
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:
- Geographical Isolation. It is simply easier to get to other places.
- American Economy. The cheap credit Ponzi scheme economy is on its last legs. The American middle class is dissolving as we speak.
- Cost of Travel. As the price of gas increases, people are less willing to travel long distances, either by plane or car for holidays.
What does the future look like for these communities? Without significant federal or provincial investment, one of two things must happen:
- Levels of service must decrease, or
- 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.