On rural decline in New Brunswick

I spent some time yesterday in a same rural community in New Brunswick. I was chatting with a few key municipal representatives. We had wide-ranging discussions but the bottom line is that this community is like so many in New Brunswick – in decline in many ways. Their gas station just closed. Their school is declining to the point they expect one day for it to be closed. There has been no real residential housing growth since the 1950s.

When I casually mentioned what are they doing about this, the answer was – nothing. No resources. No time. They have been hung out to dry by the ‘province’.

And so I pondered this for a bit.

We pay doctors a premium to locate in rural New Brunswick but we pay our economic developers less – and in fact many of these communities don’t even have a person in charge of what you would call ‘economic development’. There are regional economic developmenta agencies and they play an important role in reigons but are not the substitute for on the ground economic development in these communities.

The biggest single government expense in many of these communities is EI. The don’t have the money to hire someone to do on the ground economic development but they spend, in many cases, millions on EI in those communities.

The other point that seems obvious to me is that the successful rural communities tend to have at least one large, anchor employer (McCain’s, UPN Kymmene, etc.) around which the small business sector grows.

Yet the strategy to replace these large employers when they leave is more ‘tourism’ or ‘we need to grow small businesses’ or, in a growing number of voices, let the community die.

Why can’t we find new generational, anchor employers for these communities? We can spend $700 million per year on EI but we can’t spend a few bucks to find a way to attract new employers?

I know all the buzz now is about urbanization in Atlantic Canada. Our reliance on rural economies has ‘held us back’. I know. I know. We need to be more ‘like Toronto’. Critical mass. Integrated supply chains. Infrastructure.

Yet we have dozens of communities dying. Their way of life is threatened. And I think there is a better way.

It’s voting season, folks. Put that question to the snake oil salesmen.

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0 Responses to On rural decline in New Brunswick

  1. vivenewbrunswick says:

    I’ve actually been working on an economic development plan for the town of Keswick in northern New Brunswick. While I fully agree with your concerns and criticisms, I’m wondering what ‘constructive’ came out of the talks. For example, those problems exist primarily in Ottawa (the EI) and suggesting that somehow a rural town with neither money nor time nor any real political representation get more aid from Ottawa or find a McCains won’t help much.

    In fact, even those rural places with McCain connections are far from ideal, they have HUGE problems once you get in bed with McCains.

    Ironically, though this is a HUGE problem across Canada, I could find little information on economic development initiatives in rural areas. In NB one of the only federal programs is a move to bring africans into rural areas and train and give them jobs that would normally go to New Brunswickers, and of course the huge cheque for $5000 that the feds gave to two food banks.

    ALthough this is your bread and butter so ‘what you said’ may be considered privileged, I’m just wondering if there were any kinds of ‘here’s something you can do’ remarks.

  2. David Campbell says:

    Well, Vive, I don’t want to trivialize this. There are no easy answers. I am just trying to reduce the discussion to some basic principles so we can have a place to start.

    With regard to specific rural development initiatives, I think you can do an assessment of the capacity of a community to stimulate economic development. What are its unique assets? And every community no matter how big or small has assets. For example, the community I was talking about has a fairly strong agricultural base in a specific fruit. In turns out, there are a number of producers of this fruit across the Maritimes – all within a couple of hours drive of this community. So, there is potential for a major processing facility located in this community. Individually, none of these communities produce enough product to justify a production facility but together they do.

    My problem is that I am not an expert in rural development. My angle is more around attracting investment to these communities (which I think is viable in many cases) but there is a whole lot of work on capacity building and changing the culture to be supportive of economic development. I remember a decade ago an ADM with the department of labour (or whatever it was called) said in a meeting I attended that there are “50,000 people in Northern New Brunswick who wouldn’t work a full time, year round job even if you found them one”. I thought then, and I think now, that was a callous remark but maybe it had some foundation in reality. You’re in Keswick, you tell me?

    I think wind power holds potential for rural communities. I think that creating an environment for artisans/craftspersons is potentially viable. I think that Web-based jobs (like writing content for corporate blogs :-) ) could be done in rural communities. But, we have the lowest usage of the Internet in Canada so that is problematic. I think that companies such as Rural Sourcing out of North Carolina have an interesting model. That company hires 5-15 people in small communities to do IT work. I think that the re-emergence of cooperative movements is interesting.

    I also think that rural communities could do more to target ‘truckers’. I know this sounds weird but I looked at the data from the Census and truckers don’t live in urban areas (for the most part). I assume that has something to do with trying to park your truck in downtown Fredericton. Anyway, some industry experts are saying that we will need thousands of new truckers over the next 20 years. And Wes Armour suggested recently that salaries for truckers could grow to $70k per year or more. Some rural community is going to figure this out and make itself attractive to the trucking sector and promote itself to the training schools and to the major trucking firms. Imagine if 200 truckers moved into a small NB town over the next five years.

    But the bottom line is this. These local communities need to want it. They need to want it bad. I have seen an old fella fight for his rural hospital and single-handedly keep it in his community. I have seen the mayor of a small town call up a firm in Chicago and say, you set up in that small community, what would it take to get you into our community? And then went out and did what he could to make it happen. I talked with the Mayor of Rexton recently and he was all fired up about a new industrial park in his little town.

    The province wants local governments to take more control of their destiny. Some call this ‘downloading’ and maybe they are right but it’s a fact nevertheless. So along with the many issues that small towns and their councils need to deal with, they must put economic development on their agenda. The future of their communities will be shaped, at least in part, by their willingness to take the issue seriously. Waiting for the province to drop a thousand jobs in the community is fantasy.

    That doesn’t give you much fodder but….

  3. vivenewbrunswick says:

    That’s actually amazing fodder, probably two weeks worth of blogs in one sitting, when I get a chance later I’m really going to research some of the many items that are mentioned there. You’ve got an excellent blog with good stuff, I think my only criticism (after our rocky start) would be that there needs to be more of that kind of stuff! That’s stuff that PEOPLE can really use, the problem with government criticism is that people literally have no way to DO anything about it. I’m not sure if there is one out there, but I’m thinking a ‘how to’ book on economic development for rural areas would be a cottage industry right there. I agree that on the political side there is only so much theory one can get into, on the practical side people have to ‘pull up their own socks’. I’ll say more on the ‘keswick work ethic’ later.