It is a tall order. Other than by providing loan, tax, land or rezoning incentives, it is a major challenge for local governments to improve local economies. Given that the success or failure of new and old businesses can be due to so many diverse factors, the role of governments and organizations in the equation can be elusive. Nonetheless, these efforts continue, including the recently completed Labour Market Assessment Project under the leadership of Community Futures Shuswap that had a goal to create action plans to stimulate growth in our communities.
The Assessment Project focused on six communities, Salmon Arm, Columbia Shuswap Regional District Area C and the four First Nation bands: Neskonlith, Adams Lake, Little Shuswap Lake and Splatsin. Surveys were conducted and a series of four meetings were held in each community: two presentations of data, a brainstorming strategy session, and the final building an action plan workshop. The outcome is an over 500-page report that provides details about the data collected, the results of the research, the strategies considered and the community action plans developed.
Much of the data presented was dated, but still relevant census information that shows how the Shuswap population is aging, the growth rate is low in comparison to the province, incomes are lower, and housing costs and access are major concerns. Although the results predict a potential future labour shortage due to the aging population, the survey results also show that the shortage of jobs is the most significant barrier to employment.
A number of themes emerged from the assessment process. Reconciliation efforts need to continue to reduce the disparity between the Indigenous communities and the community at large. There is a growing need for affordable housing, as in order to attract new businesses there must be more places for employees to live. As well, evidence indicates both a projected growth in labour market demand and a decline in supply.
There were only a small number of volunteers, including business and community leaders, who participated in the process. When it was time to develop action plans during the final meeting, the results were limited because some groups expressed a need to be able to review the report before they could create a plan.
In Area C, proposed strategies included marketing Shuswap lifestyle, offering seasonal business incentives, developing a housing plan, and creating a labour market support system for sub-trades and businesses.
The success of the project remains to be seen, as we wait to see what the community action teams will accomplish. Another way to approach the goal of economic development would be to examine the existing economy to determine where there are successes and where there are failures and then focus on promoting what is working. As well, it would be key to have a better understanding of trends in order to better predict what could work best in the future.
Over the last century, the major economic drivers in the Shuswap have shifted from agriculture, to forestry, to tourism and to lifestyle. The greatest source of income flowing into local communities now comes from pensions and investment revenues. As the population ages, there are more jobs for the service industries, retail businesses, and lifestyle companies. Twenty years ago it would have been rare to find even one yoga studio, whereas today there are many, as well as countless spas and alternative health practitioners.
The number of online, digital businesses run from homes has skyrocketed. Recreational pursuits that did not exist a few decades ago such as downhill mountain biking and paddle boarding continue to gain in popularity. Automation has already transformed the work place and artificial intelligence is now posed to radically change our lives. With marijuana soon to be legalized, many communities are seeking production facilities.
Old models of how the economy works need to be thrown out, as communities need to embrace how the new economy will work.
The new innovation centre in Salmon Arm is one key step in looking towards the future. Another step would be to do a better job of attracting the rapidly growing number of retirees and young families who can now no longer afford to live in the lower mainland.
After all, the Shuswap has all the rewards that many people desire: clean air and water; no crowds or traffic; fabulous four season, recreational opportunities; superb arts and culture; wilderness to explore and stunningly scenic, lakeside and riverside living.