The Maritimes’ Albert County Challenge

My wife and youngest daughter drove out into Albert County on Saturday just to get out of the house.   We went for a walk around an old mine site in Albert Mines (pictured).  I took the unsolicited opportunity to opine to my daughter on the importance of jurisdictions having an export-based economy.  Maybe I have been spending too much time in conversation with Herb Emery and Richard Saillant lately but I remain convinced that our future prosperity will be highly linked to the province’s export sectors.

I have written about Albert County before because it is such a good example.  Going back 150 years and more the region has leveraged its water, forests, minerals and other natural resources for economic development. Over a hundred years ago natural gas from the county serviced the City of Moncton.  Albertite, a kind a asphalt, was discovered in the county and mined for quite some time in the 19th Century.  As an aside, Wikipedia suggests extraterrestrial Albertite has been detected on the dwarf planet Ceres.  I’ll leave it to you for speculation.

In just the past 20 years or so, Albert County (and here I mean the county excluding the Town of Riverview) has gone through an even more pronounced demographic shift than many other places.  In 1996, when I was a young buck trying to convince industry to locate in New Brunswick, Albert County was relatively young.  Nearly 30% were under the age of 20.  Now the share is 11%.

The bigger deal is the ratio of young to old (er).  As shown in the chart, in 1996 there were 2,710 under the age of 20 in the area compared to only 1,185 over the age of 65.  In other words, a huge wave (relatively speaking) of young people moving into working age and a relatively small number moving out of the workforce.  Just 20 years later in 2016 there were 1,040 under the age of 20 and nearly 2,000 over the age of 65.

A more graphical way to depict this is shown in the figure below.  In 1996 there were 229 under the age of 20 for every 100 over the age of 65.  By 2016 that had completely reversed to only 53 under the age of 20 for every 100 over the age of 65.

Who’s on first?

Ono of the biggest challenges for me is the lack of people on the ground supporting economic development in the area.  If you want to mobilize people to protest against shale gas, glysophate spraying, harvesting of timber in perceived sensitive areas, etc. there are lots of very engaged folks.

If you want to develop mineral resources, re-evaluate forest products-related opportunities, develop the maple syrup cluster or just about any other economic opportunity, who is leading the charge?   I don’t know of any public sector or private sector groups that are working on economic development in the county.

So economic development becomes – wait until someone comes along with a project and then determine if you are going to support it.

I think Albert County needs more proactive economic development but, again, if a large share of the population is retired or closing in on retirement – will there be an interest?  I also compared employment by occupation in 1996 and 2016.  The relative share of the workforce employed in occupations related to education; law and social; community and government services has increased by 144% and the number working in health occupations is up by 31%.  The share working in manufacturing-related occupations is down 49% and the share working in trades and transportation is down 16%.

An older workforce much more heavily employed in the public sector.  What will be the appetite to restart albertite mining?  Not that I am suggesting that albertite has a future but I would certainly like to a) see some organization evaluating economic development opportunities out there and b) an engagement with the public in the region about the importance of economic development and their potential role.

It’s the same debate playing out all over New Brunswick.  Everyone wants high quality public services and public infrastructure but few are tying that to economic development.  I can tell you this.  If there were 1,000 people living in Albert County that were working in export-based service industries that required broadband telecommunications there would be far more government appetite to make the necessary infrastructure investment.

In fact, when I was in government, I had argued this should be a deliberate strategy.  Determine the share of the population in broadband under-serviced areas who would be interested in working a job from home that required broadband and then go and pitch that workforce to the many business services providers and other remote worker employers in the province.

I didn’t get much traction.

In the end all regions of New Brunswick and Atlantic Canada should have local/regional economic development efforts focused on the area’s assets and attributes.

Not all areas will grow at the same rate.

Some will continue to shed population.

But all, I believe, at least deserve an honest effort to develop local economic opportunities.

4 thoughts on “The Maritimes’ Albert County Challenge

  1. David, I don’t think you got the full picture on your visit. There are people working extremely hard on economic development in Albert County.

    They are doing it in a holistic way that’s a little risky for government and doesn’t fit tidily into traditional models. They actually do have 1000 people working in an export service industry. Tourism. 300,000 visitors a year.

    It’s a chicken and the egg scenario. For all the reasons you mention, they need a hand to monetize the existing experiences in the County – perhaps wandering around a historic mine site for example.

    A lot of that work is being done by volunteer groups. More government support is needed for them.

    I’d love to talk to you more about this because I think you are right. Debates like this are happening all across New Brunswick right now and they need to be.

  2. Alaina, I would love to hear what is going on in Albert County. My worry is about the lack of government focus on economic development in the county and I worry about the demographic trends. If local groups are working to foster growth in export-focused sectors (including tourism) that’s great. Love to chat about it with you.

  3. Hi David,

    I think the theme that Economic Development means a return to Mining, Forestry or Natural Gas misses the mark of where the Albert County is at looking towards 2021 and beyond. The main asset that is being developed and sold now in Albert County are our Natural, Historical and Cultural assets in the form of Tourism. It would be interesting to know how those numbers compare in your research.

    With the Hopewell Rocks, Cape Enrage, Fundy, the soon to be open Fundy Parkway and all points in-between, the visitor economy has been booming (well until Covid-19) and has almost exceeded the county’s ability to deliver on many days.

    There are a few very active non-government organizations trying to help with Economic Development in Albert County.

    The Albert County Tourism Association is one the largest and most active tourism associations in the province and last year even began it’s own digital ad campaign building on the excellent work driving visitors to the Bay of Fundy from NB Tourism.

    The Friends of Fundy has grown out of the Fundy Guild to become something much more and is working hard to benefit the communities and businesses surrounding Fundy Park.

    The Albert County Chamber of Commerce held its 2020 Excellence Awards online this past Saturday evening on May 9th, and had over 120 viewers and participants for over 2 hours. It recognized some of the best we have to offer, and it’s pretty world class. Awards winners included the Buddha Bear Cafe and Whole Whale Brewing, Tipsy Tails, Albert County Clay, Broadleaf Ranch, The Albert County Museum, Roccos Cuccina, and there were many more top-notch business that could have been on the podium as well. The quality of the tourism product in Albert County is world-class. We need more of them.

    These three organizations are working closely together to try to support existing businesses and help new ones succeed in Albert County. There is a real resurgence and emergence happening right now in this space.

    What is needed now (well maybe in 2021) are more operators. In a way, it is an export business, because many of the dollars coming are from outside the province. The number of visitors coming into Albert County to Fundy and the Hopewell Rocks from Ontario, Quebec and the US are impressive and have been growing.

    Albert County has a shortage of beds and tables (and high-quality roads). All renewable resources. There is also further opportunity in enhancing other resources such as our growing trail systems, historic sites and museums, and underdeveloped hidden gems like Whiterock, Crooked Creek, Waterside, and Dennis Beach.

    Many of the more recent tourist operators in Albert have come from away, or are returning expats, adding to the cohort of those that have been at this (and doing it well) for a long time. But to your point on the aging population, there are also stories of difficulties finding summer students and younger employees.

    Where the government can help is in finding new ways to help entrepreneurs alleviate the risk and challenges of actually starting new tourism related businesses. There is almost no end to the resources and help available if you want to start a Tech company, but it’s a little different story if you want to start a traditional Inn, Restaurant or Adventure Tourism business. It will be a lot of these small businesses that chart the future of Albert County.

    How about a Tourism Start-up Incubator? Or seed-funding for Tourism businesses?

    I couldn’t agree more with your notion of tailoring economic development programs to the local assets and attributes, But thinking that is going to be traditional natural resource development, exports, or tele-commuters is missing the opportunity in Albert County.

    Kevin Berry
    Councillor, Village of Hillsborough

    1. Thank you for the thorough response. I am not suggesting Albert County return to mining and other extractive industries although I also have been clear on this blog that as long as we are using the minerals, etc. coming from extractive industries in our daily lives we shouldn’t rule out mining our own resources. But reasonable people can disagree. I do appreciate the tourism focus and look forward to finding out more. I also hope that government can play a role in helping to foster economic opportunities in smaller places like Albert County. I have rejected the notion that all development should be concentrated in urban centres. We should pursue economic opportunities wherever they can be found in the province.

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