I read this morning in the T&T that the Miramichi is about to announce a committee to “to tackle Miramichi’s economic woes”.
I wonder if these exercises are meant to be an end in and of themselves. After all, the Miramichi had a strategic plan developed for its economy just a couple of years ago and it was just updated last year. In both cases, the document acknowledged the problems with the forestry sector and as I recall wanted to replace those jobs with more tourism (a strategy that makes me cringe).
The truth doesn’t need much studying. The Miramich economy has been reliant on a few large forestry-related employers and some highly seasonal industries. The forestry is going down and seasonal jobs are less and less attractive to younger generations. So the population dropped almost 4% from 1996 to 2001 and another 2% from 2001 to 2006. And this was before the closure of the mills. A new Walmart and Boston Pizza won’t make up for that.
The truth is that Miramichi should have a bright future. It has a retail and services catchment population of at least 30,000 people (for whom it is closer to drive to the ‘chi than to Moncton or Bathurst or Freddy Beach). It is close enough to Moncton that services such as the regional hospital or airport are not out of reach but far enough to be distinct (it’s hard to commute from Sillikers to Moncton – Francis McGuire notwithstanding).
But the truth is simple. The main industry the community relied on is in decline. The community needs to replace it. Forget tourism – that’s a silly idea. Replacing $25/hour mill jobs with $8/hour seasonal tourism jobs is a recipe for disaster. Forget plowing money into ‘local entrepreneurship’. That has traditionally been a euphemism for bailing out local firms with bad business models. If there are serious and high growth potential entrepreneurs like FatKat, fine. Roll out the red carpet. Give them the keys to the city. But stop the madness.
No, Miramichi needs a plan to build an anchor industry or two for the 21st century and then work on strategies to attract skilled workers into that sector (or those sectors). I’m partial to the animation cluster idea. Something wood related might still be in the cards – something higher value – biomass or value added manufacturing or some such thing (I don’t know enough to say). Being a manufacturing hub for New Brunswick might be an option. Data centres. Cleantech. Who knows? I’d support just about anything (except tourism) as long as the province, feds and local community stakeholders get serious. Doling out a ‘Miramichi’ fund to ‘special’ projects is almost a laughable idea.
We have spent far too much money in the Miramichi bailing out bad companies (large and small). Far too much money paying people not to work (EI). Far too much money educating people for employment they won’t find in the Miramichi. Far too much money trying to have things like airports and other infrastructure that distracted us from the real issues. Instead of trying to compete with Moncton and Fredericton as a scheduled carrier airport, why didn’t we focus our efforts into making Miramichi an MRO hub for Atlantic Canada? It seems to have worked in Slemon Park.
The bottom line is that Miramichi needs a niche. And you don’t get that by writing a brochure or hanging out a shingle. Miramichi was once a prime location for a pulp mill. Maybe those days are waning. What will it be a prime location for in the 21st century? I refuse to believe that a retirement community is the only option.