Rural N.B. target for big funds

The T&T is reporting this morning that both B. Lord and S. Graham are about to make major funding announcements for rural New Brunswick.

Now, notwithstanding the fact that Al Hogan’s ‘story’ literally published word for word the ‘accomplishments’ of Lord’s existing rural development activities (read it, the wording is like a government press release).

But I digress.

It’s hard to believe that anyone living outside of Moncton, Fredericton and a few towns in the upper SJ river valley would consider voting for the Tories. Just about every town and village in the province (outside of those three isolated areas) is in population decline. Drug abuse is on the rise – the mayors of Miramichi and Grand Manan have called it a widespread problem and an RCMP officer I know stated that it’s worse in small town New Brunswick than in Toronto.

And of course, when there is population decline, there is the resultant reduction in government funding. Schools close, hospitals close/downsize, other services are reduced taking much needed economic activity out of rural NB.

There are some reasonable people that think rural NB needs to be ‘rightsized’. That we are too rural (45% live in rural communities compared to less than 20% nationally). That by cutting 30% out of the population, you will end up with a smaller but more successful rural economy.

I don’t happen to buy this. Firstly, when you encourage people to leave (directly or indirectly) the best usually go first. It’s sort of like when governments do their ‘early retirement packages’. Who takes them? The best of the lot. Secondly, as mentioned above, when the population declines so does government services in the community which starts the cycle of out-migration all over again.

I also believe that the future – near term – rural NB is bleak. ‘

Alberta is aggressively recruiting our rural workers to move there and it’s working. Out-migration last year was the highest in the last seven.

The pulp mill in the Miramichi is in serious jeopardy. Lord’s $5 million will give it life for what, one year? Two?

The mill in Nackawic – Peter Mesheau’s self-described most successful effort – is also in jeopardy. Despite the largest financial incentive package I have ever witnessed (something like $80 million), the new owners of that mill stated the day it opened that they might have to go back to the government for more funds. The day it opened.

Manufacturing, which is predominantly rural-based, is down significantly since 2000. This trend is likely to continue given the high $CDN dollar, China and border security issues.

The now famous rural call centre, Virtual Agent Services, the one I helped attract here in 1998 – is about at the end of its growth in the province – 800 rural jobs in 14 communities.

I predict if the government doesn’t radically change its approach to rural NB, the next seven years will be worse than the last seven.

My ideas?

There is no easy answer but here are a few things worth exploring in my opinion:

Build rural-urban linkages. I have talked about this before. This is a major trend in the economic development world and what does our government do in 1999? It created more rural economic development groups. That makes sense. When everyone else is moving towards more integrated urban/rural economic development, we fragment it more.

I would create 6 maybe 7 regional development commissions (with employees in the individual communities) and would work towards more integration of activities. As I have said before, the vast majority of large manufacturing projects in the US are being sited in communities an hour or more from the urban centre. But this goes way beyond just manufacturing. This is about linking rural businesses with urban ones through joint Chamber activities. This is about looking at public transit from rural to urban areas. This is about education and training. This is about embracing the different advantages offered by both the urban and rural communities. None of this is being done now because these efforts have been isolated into ‘rural’ versus ‘urban’.

I would look for 5-6 anchor manufacturing projects for rural NB over a five or six year period. These would be 500+ job projects (similar to the one announced in Parrsboro that was not covered in the T&T) paying good wages and girding up rural manfacturing. Call it the Michelin model if you will. Of course, to all the small manufacturers in rural NB that are already dealing with emerging labour shortages, I would be implementing an aggressive people strategy (mentioned before) to address this.

I would look for new economy industry development opportunities but align them with specific community strengths. In Sackville, leverage Mt. A. In Miramichi, the NBCC animation program. In Edmundston, UdeM.

I would work with each community on a serious, tailored industry development plan and then would invest serious dollars in infrastructure, training and industry attraction to make it happen. Animation in Miramichi. Translation services in Tracadie. Manufacturing in Campbellton.

Wind energy, ethanol, biodesiel, etc. etc. etc. There’s a host of emerging opportunities in rural industry development and we are badly behind in trying to exploit them. Quebec was one of the first regions in North America to not only embrace wind power but to tie it to manufacturing. The wind mills in the Gaspe? Manufactured up there as well.

Sounds easy, no?