sunny future

🕔Sep 07, 2005

Every Prince Rupert resident will tell you that on a clear day, there’s no better place in B.C. And with recent economic opportunity smiling on this seaside town, it’s as sunny as it gets.

Although still coping with the bankruptcy of the New Skeena Forest Products, this resilient town of 15,000 has plenty of reasons for optimism.

Ocean-borne visitors are expected to flood the city in unprecedented numbers this summer: in a 130-day season, approximately 65,000 visitors from cruise ships and another 4,200 from smaller, high-end vessels, are expected to generate up to 60 more jobs for about 300 seasonal tourism jobs in all.

In mid-April, the provincial and federal governments committed $60 million for the $120-milllion container port expansion, which is projected to create 500 short-term jobs and 2,500 long-term. Less than two weeks later, CN confirmed its own plans for multi-million dollar upgrades to railway infrastructure as a result.

With these developments come entrepreneurial opportunities—not only in Prince Rupert, but the entire region. “They’re mind-boggling… This is going to transform the north,” says Jim Rushton of the Prince Rupert Economic Development Commission.

Homeowners are also smiling, as real estate values are spiking dramatically. New courses at the Northwest Community College provide students with greater education opportunities than ever before.

Poised on the edge of change, it’s an exhilarating place to be, and a time when some long-term strategic visioning about a community’s future can be most useful—even essential—to success.

“Our experience is that the most successful communities have a sense of common purpose, of where they want to go,” says Guy Patterson, who works for a Vancouver-based non-profit agency called Smart Growth B.C.

He helps communities undertake visioning processes, where multiple stakeholders come together to set out priorities for development with integrates social, environmental and economic goals. These visions differ from Official Community Plans, which are required by law and tend to focus on land-use planning within city limits rather than broader principles.

Greg Halseth, research chair of Rural and Small Town Studies in UNBC’s newly created Community Development Institute, is a big fan of such thinking. That’s why he’s led the Northern BC Economic Development Vision and Strategy Project, a year-long process that convened diverse interests from more than 50 communities to articulate priorities for regional economic development.

“It’s a first step,” says Halseth of the resulting report Connecting the North.

Halseth believes such processes can also be useful at the community level. “Communities need to examine their assets and aspirations, and ask: how will we engage with a global economy?”

Patterson and Halseth offered examples of communities who have completed community-based visioning processes, with great results: Nelson, Tumbler Ridge and Okotoks, Alberta.

Of course, “Rupertites” are not new to considering how major projects relate to their overall quality of life.

“Everyone does this,” says Rushton, citing examples of how this is done on a project-by-project basis. In his view, Rupertites—indeed all northerners who stand to benefit from the container port—would be better off focusing on manufacturing opportunities to be realized from new access to overseas markets.

Pre-occupied as it is with pressing concerns, it’s no surprise that Prince Rupert has not undertaken a community-based visioning process. Guy Patterson says key ingredients are required: an inclusive approach, buy-in from as many sectors of the community as possible, savvy organizers who work with existing networks and agencies, a variety of ways for people to become involved, time for meetings, and someone willing to take on a co-ordinating role. Typically, local governments spearhead such processes, but any organization or combination of organizations could do it.

There are already signs that some key movers are thinking along these lines.

Bob Lipsett, a tourism instructor at Northwest Community College in the faculty of Business Administration, likens community development to a jigsaw puzzle.

“No one has really said, ‘Let’s take a look at the big picture, put all the pieces together,’” he says.

For Lipsett, important pieces include education and training. The college will have six new tourism courses in a tourism program, and Lipsett hopes to eventually double these soon. He wants to ensure that Rupertites—particularly First Nations—are well positioned and equipped for job and business opportunities.

“This will be the summer that is really pivotal for First Nations if artists, carvers, musicians step forward,” he adds.

Erika Rolston, community outreach co-ordinator for World Wildlife Fund Canada, says she is “connecting the dots” by trying to get Rupertites to think about renewable energy options which can profitably fit in its future.

“It’s very difficult to separate the economy from the environment, especially in natural resource-based communities like Prince Rupert,” she says.

Meanwhile, Sheila Dobie is co-ordinating the North Coast Community Asset Development Initiative (NCCADI), which is taking stock of social services in Prince Rupert and outlying areas. That work has included community-mapping exercises, where ordinary citizens come together to identify their neighbourhoods’ assets and challenges, with a view to finding solutions to issues like crime and social isolation.

She says the RCMP have flagged potential social impacts of expanding the port, such as organized crime and increased prostitution.

“No one’s going to stand in the way of that development,” says Dobie. “What is important is that people are talking about how we are going to address these issues.”

She hopes to see such issues discussed at a social issues summit held in Prince Rupert’s near future.

Rolston, Dobie and Lipsett all agree Prince Rupert could benefit from a community visioning process.

“There really should be [one],” says Rolston. “There’s a lot of forward momentum, without a long-term view of where this is taking us.”

“We have to be so aware of where we’re headed,” agrees Dobie. “Without a strong vision, we’ll be back where we started in a few decades.”

She believes NCCADI could be the closest thing to an organization taking an over-view of development, and would be able to contribute greatly to a community visioning process.

Lipsett also sees a role for NWCC. “I’d like to think the college could [catalyze] it,” he said “We don’t have a political agenda. We want to provide education, and I don’t think we’re perceived as a threat by anyone.”

With or without a clearly defined vision, communities undergoing huge economic development are bound to grapple with their social, environmental and cultural impacts. With every benefit comes a new challenge: Real estate values increase, but so do rents. Tourism boosts communities’ self-image, but also impacts the cultures they revere. The shipping industry brings products and jobs, but increases crime too. Increased economic activity is good for everyone, but also raises energy demands, burdens public infrastructure, and creates new pressures on endangered ecosystems.

“The change will happen,” says Patterson. “It’s a question of whether a community wants control in the consequences, or to adapt to what the future holds.”

Further reading:

Smart Growth: A Primer, available at

The Connected North: Moving from northern strength to northern strength. A report from the Northern BC Economic Vision and Strategy Project: UNBC Aug. 2004. Available at:

© Larissa Ardis