Big ideas breathe new life into small towns

Rural Canadians are worried about the sustainability of their small towns and communities. That’s, in part, because residents of small town Canada are getting older and many younger residents, aged 15 to 29, are leaving for good to pursue higher education and work.

But it’s not all bad news on the rural Canadian front, where regions with less than 10,000 residents support 28 per cent of the nation’s jobs and produce 30 per cent of Canada’s GDP via jobs and services linked to industries like food production, resource extraction and energy generation.

Those numbers come from the State of Rural Canada 2015, a report that includes input from the Rural Development Institute (RDI) at Brandon University in Brandon, MB, says RDI’s executive director, Bill Ashton.

Moving forward, the RDI is convinced that rural economic development won’t be “about solving problems so much as it will be about figuring out who owns the problems,” says Ashton. “We’ve moved past strategic planning. The focus is on strategic doing.”

RDI’s goal is to help communities tackle specific problems with specific actions. These range from zoning changes or the development of Internet infrastructure that make a community “investment ready”, to setting up community-based cooperatives to take over businesses without viable succession plans. “Sometimes the lack of action is the elephant in the room,” says Ashton.

Here’s a closer look at what four towns in western Canada are doing to breathe life into their communities.

Rolling out the welcome mat

Altona, Manitoba

Private sponsors in Altona welcomed 45 refugees from five Syrians families in early 2016. It’s impossible to quantify the economic spinoff of a humanitarian effort. It’s also foolhardy to deny the fact that all the newcomers might leave Altona when commitments made by their private sponsors expire after one year.

“But if they leave, they are still grateful to the sponsors and there’s no question initiatives like this impact local economies. Altona, with a population of 4,400 people, increased its population by one per cent in a matter of weeks and that included about 20 new students for Altona schools,” says Laurie Sawatsky of Regional Connections (RC), an organization that helps settle newcomers in southern Manitoba.

That region is now home to residents from more than 125 countries. Sawatsky, who lives in Altona, hopes some of the newest migrants stay. Regardless, the initiative was worthwhile — and not only because it saved lives. “The volunteers also supported each other. We’re all stronger now.”

Open for small business

Camrose, Cold Lake, Hanna and Rocky Mountain House, Alberta

Four Rural Alberta Business Centres (RABCs) in Camrose, Cold Lake, Hanna and Rocky Mountain House, were in the right place at the right time. Opened in 2012 under remarkably different economic circumstances, the RABCs are helping owner-operated companies in rural areas weather the collapse of the province’s energy industry, says Michelle Andrishak, a small business advisor with the RABC in Rocky Mountain House.

There’s nothing small about the focus on small business, says Andrishak. About 96 per cent of all businesses in Alberta employ fewer than 50 employees. These enterprises account for more than 37 per cent of private sector jobs and about 29 per cent of Alberta’s GDP.

Meeting across desks and kitchen tables throughout rural Alberta, Andrishak and her colleagues provide one-to-one business coaching about topics like marketing, human resources, staff retention and recruitment. To date, RABCs helped generate about $1.5 million in new revenue, plus more than $900,000 in investment.

If you’ve got it, flaunt it!

Watrous and Manitou Beach, Saskatchewan

In 2010, the Town of Watrous, Village of Manitou Beach and Rural Municipality of Morris teamed up to hire a community development officer (CDO). Their goal: work together to promote sustainable population growth by capitalizing on the fact that more than 150,000 people a year travel through Watrous to visit the therapeutic salt waters of Little Manitou Lake, just 4 km away.

Managing competing interests in a cooperative development program is complicated. These neighbours make it » work by agreeing to a marketing plan that showcases the region’s future in young families and children, says CDO, Brendan Manz.

Less than 2,000 people live in Watrous. With 17 per cent of the population under the age of 15 however, the town is recording a bit of a baby boom; the local preschool capped enrolment in 2016 and a new daycare centre is in the works. “Sometimes I hear people say they don’t recognize anyone when they go downtown. I want to smile and say, ‘You’re welcome,'” says Manz.

Share a meal, hatch a plan

Redvers, Saskatchewan

Regional cooperation is also key to Redvers’ success. Last September, Redvers, population 975, held a family-style “long table” meal on Main Street. Having launched an extensive study of its main drag’s past, present and future, “the meal was a good reminder of the fact that people live here because they want to live here,” says Jasmin Carlton, economic development officer for Redvers and the neighbouring Rural Municipality (RM) of Antler.

“That’s something to build on. The whole idea was to get people talking so we didn’t have assigned seating. About 150 people came and our guests ranged in age from two to 89.”

Redvers has experience reinventing itself. In 2015, six years after the province closed its hospital, Redvers Health Centre reopened with the arrival of three doctors, including two with local ties. Today, that facility includes acute, emergency, longterm and palliative care, plus medical and public health clinics. It employs more than 90 people.

The night before the long-table supper, tickets for the local health foundation’s annual fundraiser went on sale. That event raised more than $100,000 — big bucks for a small community with 575 people in the surrounding RM. “It’s about vision and sustainability. We think Redvers has both,” says Carlton. FF

Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation’s State of Rural Canada 2015 www.farmforum.ca/ stateofruralcanada Rural Alberta Business Centres www.farmforum.ca/ ruralbusinesscentres