Open for business

🕔Jul 21, 2008

It seems like everyone is in pursuit of sustainability these days. Hungrily devouring all things green, striving to meet the high standards of the current trend. Even businesses are turning over a new leaf, saving a tree or two by practicing the three Rs and learning to team up and share.
Sustainability is like that. It demands commitment on so many levels: environmentally, socially and financially. Some businesses are confused about where to start, while others stumble upon it through the strength of a great mission and a determined board of directors. These pioneering new ventures are open for business, but not necessarily for profit.
Over the past few years, several new business models have emerged as organizations realize the value—the necessity even—of collaboration. Although Northwest successes have been hard-won, and in some cases miraculously slow, optimism is now beginning to surface, thanks in part to economic development vehicles like the Northern Development Initiative Trust, the Co-operative Development Initiative, and Community Futures of BC.
These economic development agencies demonstrate an awakening understanding by both provincial and federal governments of the unique and challenging business landscape of BC’s rural north.
According to Janine North, CEO of Northern Development Initiative Trust, “Our Board has a mandate to help create 10,000 new jobs by 2020. It will be businesses that create those jobs but we will provide the programs that will help attract that business.”
It is through the cooperation and partnership of these and other economic agencies, not to mention civic participation, that non-profits like the Prince Rupert Port Authority have leveraged necessary funds and opened new corridors of economic opportunity.
“This project [Prince Rupert port facilities] is a perfect example of a partnership making things happen. The Port and the City, with assistance from other levels of government, have done what neither could do alone,” said Prince Rupert’s mayor Herb Pond in 2003. “It’s invigorating to be a part of a community that chooses to invest in itself and create its own destiny.”

Meat miracle
That same willingness for community to share the risks and broaden the benefits resulted in Northern Trust’s 100th project: the $433,000 loan guarantee to the Northwest Premium Meat Co-operative (NWPMC) in Telkwa, which embodies the fundamental shift to sustainability so prevalent in the Northwest’s nonprofit sector.
In anticipation of the September 2007 Meat Inspection Regulation, requiring all meat sold in BC to be inspected by licensed slaughter establishments, Bulkley Valley ranchers and farmers decided to form a co-operative and build their own local abattoir and processing plant. In addition to having access to a local licensed slaughter facility, they are also able to provide new regional markets and thereby a steady, fair price for high-quality livestock.
“It’s a miracle,” explains Tracey Strong, NWPMC marketing director and owner of River Ridge Farm. “When the new meat regulations came out there were 71 proposals submitted similar in nature to this one. Today, we are the only one of those operating.”
The list of partners involved in making this miracle happen is impressive. Most impressive is the $600,000 raised from Bulkley Valley producers who have personally invested in the project. “There aren’t a lot of large personal investors,” indicated Strong during a facility tour, “mostly a thousand dollars here and five hundred there. These are farmers; they don’t have a lot of capital to invest, and less to risk—that’s what’s so amazing.”
The Telkwa facility opened its doors to the public at the end of May this year, offering locally grown, hormone-free beef and pork, raised on Bulkey Valley farms and processed in Telkwa. Operations Manager Eugen Wittwer has gone to great lengths to insure that the meat cooperative has considered the environment, the community, and financial implications at every step. From custom-designing the abattoir’s internal building structure (to handle the weight-load), to the energy-saving ozone sanitation system, and to coordinating distribution to mitigate transportation, Wittwer has taken the time to consider all the impacts. Not only is this cooperative about increasing local sustainability, it is a living, breathing testament of best practices.
Creating 13 jobs initially and handling an estimated 3,000 animals per year, it won’t make enough money in the initial stages to afford a fancy marketing scheme, but it will break even and, thanks to the dedication of its board of directors, it will make the business of farming more viable throughout the Northwest.

Upgrading the Ark
Up the road from the new Telkwa meat market is another little business that turned to collaboration for financial sustainability. Early childhood educator Norma Stokes had owned and operated Norma’s Ark, a licensed daycare centre, for over fifteen years as a proprietor.
The lack of government funding available to for-profit daycares like hers made the business non-profitable, and in response she began to investigate the potential of selling the centre to a community-owned non-profit society. The driving principle behind the concept was to find a way to bring in partners. From a sustainable business sense, the daycare was already extremely conscious of its environmental and social responsibility to the community it serves. From the chicken-wire compost bin at the back to action-packed outdoor adventures teaching environmental conservation, Norma’s Ark was leading by example. Operating as a non-profit wouldn’t change the program or the recycling agenda, but it would certainly open up the doors of opportunity to provincial grants and Gaming funds desperately needed to ‘keep the Ark afloat.’
During the first year of operation by the newly formed society, Treehouse Housing Association, Norma’s Ark applied for and received over $10,000 in provincial funding for playground equipment and facility upgrades. In 2008 the society applied for and was awarded a $453,000 capital grant from the Ministry of Children and Families toward the purchase and expansion of the current facility. Because of the move from proprietorship to nonprofit, the residents of Telkwa now own and control the daycare facility in perpetuity, creating a complex and dynamic collaborative model that strives to be sustainable in every sense of the word.

Pellet partnership
A little bit southeast in the District of Houston another interesting partnership is underway. Houston Pellet Limited Partnership is a collaborative effort between Canadian Forest Products Ltd (Canfor), Pinnacle Pellet Inc, and the Moricetown Band. The partnership developed a wood-pellet production plant and bark-fired energy system adjacent to the Canfor sawmill in Houston. Using sawdust and wood waste to create a renewable value-added product, as well as utilize on-site bark waste to heat the mill is an innovative step up the sustainability ladder.
According to a 2006 press release, “This project not only supports economic diversification within the region, but also supports the growing movement from fossil to renewable fuels.” There is little doubt that ‘partnership’ played a key role in making this vision reality. Sometimes it takes several independent organizations to share resources, knowledge and expertise to bring the technology and economic diversity to the North that is required to make our economy truly sustainable.
These new businesses (and others across the North) are focusing more and more on community, environment and long-term viability and less on short-term profit margins. For the first time we are witness to the critical role of nonprofit boards, cooperatives and limited partnerships, and we are only just beginning to explore innovative models that share resources and expertise in order to increase share equity.
In response to the increased role nonprofit boards and partnerships are beginning to play in community economic development, the Bulkley Valley Credit union recently sponsored the Wetzinkwa Community Forest Board’s two-day Board Governance Training workshop in Smithers. Targeting non-profit societies that operate business ventures, facilitator Marnie Goldenberg focused on developing systems and leadership to elevate the capacity of volunteer-run organizations.
Recognizing the need to support volunteer board members and embracing this new business trend, other agencies including local municipalities and provincial economic development programs are ramping up support, training and mentorship to help ensure new board members are well equipped with the tools necessary to perform their duties and succeed.
In 2007 the Northern Development Initiative trust partnered with local communities to fill a noticeable gap in capacity. The trust contributed $157,000 (75%) toward the total wage cost of 21 community grant-writers throughout the region. The initiative resulted in those communities collectively securing $5.9 million dollars of new funding—proving that a little support in the right area can result in significant returns.
The reality is that businesses need to be dynamic and responsive to ever-changing global conditions, and community economic development needs to respond by building capacity at every level. Northern residents know what is needed to sustain the unique and diverse business of being ‘the North,’ and they are proving they aren’t afraid of rolling up their sleeves and sharing the risk to capture a bit of that elusive sustainability.