Eric Denhoff: Saving B.C.'s forestry towns—a Marshall Plan for the Interior of the province

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      By Eric Denhoff

      More than 8,000 B.C. forestry workers are off the job, some temporarily, thousands permanently. Twenty mills have closed, many unlikely to reopen any time soon.

      The crisis in the woods is different from any other B.C.’s forest industry has faced in recent years—worse than 2008, because we were low-cost producers then, just waiting for a turnaround in the U.S. housing market to refire.

      To adjust, B.C. turned its marketing guns on China and opened lucrative new markets there.

      Now, we are high-cost producers, in most cases, and the combination of pine beetle destruction and wildfires ravaging timber supply means it’s going to be a long, long time before the tide turns again in B.C.’s favour.

      In the meantime, towns from Mackenzie to Fort St. James, from Quesnel to 100 Mile House and beyond are facing potential devastation as current and potential closures wreak havoc on their towns.

      This isn’t the fault of a single government, provincial or federal. It’s not the fault of a single company, or failure of a single market. Certainly, there are plenty of villains to go around: the centralization of capital, Canadian companies moving into the U.S. market to avoid endless softwood lumber battles on a good portion of their production (taking with them profits from B.C.), and various governments’ inability to deal effectively with pine beetle.

      The current NDP government has made a real effort to deal with the crisis, announcing $69 million for things like transitioning and retraining workers.

      My concern is that, for most of B.C., the economy is humming and folks are living in a bubble of job security and relative comfort that brings (although, to be fair, living in comfort may not be a totally accurate way to describe tens of thousands trying to find affordable accommodation in Vancouver and Victoria).

      A mill closes in the Lower Mainland, throwing 150 workers out of jobs, and Vancouver doesn’t notice because it seems every day a new tech company announces an arrival or expansion that dwarfs that loss.

      But in small-town B.C., when you lose 150 or 200 jobs, you pretty much lose the town.

      CBC News broadcast this story in September as the crisis in forest towns was intensifying.

      Bring real hope to all of B.C.

      So, enough admiring the problem, what can be done?

      Lots, and here’s the Marshall Plan for B.C.’s Forestry Towns to do it:

      1. Let’s immediately enable these hard-hit towns to offer complete municipal and regional property-tax exemptions to new businesses or industries that locate in their towns. Saving tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for the next 10 years will interest some companies. Give the mayors something to market

      2. Let’s join with Ottawa to get dramatic new assistance to companies willing to locate in these towns and smaller cities. Identify the dozen or so hardest hit, and provide each of them with an economic development fund of up to $5 million each to provide outright capital construction grants to new companies who will move to their towns and open job-creating businesses with more than 10 employees. We have models for this with the Columbia Basin Trust and the Northern economic development grants scheme—let’s refocus and refine and add to this and make saving small-town B.C. an emergency effort just like climate emergency efforts.

      3. Let’s start moving the bureaucrats to small town B.C. When the B.C. government moved the B.C. Lottery Corporation to Kamloops, it had an immediate and sustained impact. A few hundred jobs in Kamloops not subject to economic cycles, well-paying and with good benefits mean a big difference in a small centre. Lots of public servants are happy to live in Smithers and Prince George and Revelstoke because they can afford a house, love the outdoors, kids are safe, and life is sensible.

      Why not move some small offices with 30 to 50 bureaucrats to Quesnel or Mackenzie or Williams Lake or similar towns where the combination of modern technology and changed program practices mean it’s much less important that the bureaucrats be headquartered in Victoria or Vancouver. Premier John Horgan did a cool initial step, moving 100 jobs from Victoria centre to Langford recently, saving those workers a huge commute into town and giving them more quality of life and time with their families, and a big commute savings. Let’s do more. Fifty jobs times a $50,000 annual salary is a $2.5 million payroll to provide a floor to the local, small-town economy.

      4. Let’s bring in the world’s leading diversification experts—folks who have done this over and over in resource communities that need to transition—and get some long-term planning going. We’ve seen the steps made by places like Port Renfrew to move from logging to tourism and sport fishing, and while not without lots of bumps, a significant change has been made. Similarly, major U.S. cities that faced near extinction as steel or coal floundered have found a haven in new technology solutions. We can’t restore every hard-hit forestry town to its former glory, but there’s sure as hell no reason we can try and give it everything we have to create a new future for them.

      This Marshall Plan for B.C.'s Forestry Towns is about three things:

      • Respect
      • Hope
      • Substance

      Those of us who benefit by living and working in the strong economy–big cities of B.C. owe it to our fellow citizens working in resource communities to show them some respect for the tough time they are having. We owe it to them to give them some hope that help is on the way. The $69-million package from B.C.’s government is an excellent first start, but we can do more. And we need to provide substance to back up those first two sentiments.

      Lots of folks who are more knowledgeable on community development, transitions, tax policy, and the forest industry than me should weigh in and make this Marshall Plan for B.C.’s Forestry Towns a reality.  

      We’re getting close to Christmas, and what everyone wants when the holidays come is hope and the certainty of some work ahead. We can do this.

      Eric Denhoff is a former deputy minister in B.C. and Alberta and former chief federal negotiator. He served under Liberal, NDP, Conservative, and Social Credit governments.

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