Reimagine Rural

When ‘rural’ means only 14% of your population like it does in Ontario, looking at rural development is a relatively small scale issue (not to downplay its importance) but when it is 47% of your population as in New Brunswick, it is a fundamental issue.  It has preoccupied my thinking for some time now and my thoughts have been evolving.  I now believe that a key to successful rural and small town development is proximity to a larger urban centre.  I’ll have some more to say about this in my column this week in the TJ. 

In the meantime, another important thing we need to start doing is thinking about rural and northern New Brunswick again through the lense of economic development.  There are lots of voices calling for more EI, save our hospitals, save our ferries, fill our potholes, broadband, etc. but there is less thinking – serious thinking – about a successful economic development model – particularly for Northern New Brunswick.  I think the rural and small communities that are within the orbit of Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton are a different story and need to be looked at in the context of sustaining urban/rural linkages.

Here is an interesting initiative in South Dakota called “Reimagine Rural“.   Here is a blog about how they turn the state’s intellectual horsepower to thinking about the future of local areas.

15 thoughts on “Reimagine Rural

  1. Northern Ontario has always faced pretty much the exact same problems as Northern New Brunswick-a multiyear scale back and loss of jobs in forestry, a reliance on natural resource extraction, a brief respite while some mineral prices went up but now dealing with their collapse. It was two years ago I was posting here about Sudbury’s newfound strength-jobs were plentiful. Mine managers had a tough time finding people to work overtime because workers made so much money-anecdotal evidence had yearly OVERTIME at $45,000.

    Now, Sudbury is essentially a basket case. They’ve been bleeding jobs, and whole mines have closed. That’s pretty much the state of northern NB.

    But again, you only hear the ‘voices’ the media wants you to hear. Go watch “Forbidden Forest”, there were MASSIVE rallies and protests everywhere the government went-yet they NEVER got covered. The liberals forestry initiative didn’t even go on the road, they had one meeting up north and it got so out of control that they cancelled the rest of them. And just a quick look at CBC posts shows just what NBers think of the ‘new’ forestry initiatives which contain almost nothing for woodlot owners.

    Besides, let’s state the obvious, in a rural community a hospital, bridge, or school IS economic development-especially the first two, where some government jobs can make a HUGE difference. If the liberals were interested at all, they could have put the energy department in St. George instead of St. John, they could move at least ONE provincial office into the north somewhere.

    While there is something to be gained from ‘local’ conversations about economic development, the fact is that most of these places have just barely the funding to get by. And people aren’t stupid, they know what goes on in their sphere of industry-so when a small community like McAdam gets the town together to organize a community forest initiative, and the province won’t even LOOK at it, then locals quite rightly get the impression that its a waste of time. In the US locals at least have some power-heck, in Vermont you guys in Moncton could be getting together to lobby to change the sales tax in Moncton on some specific industry in order to foster it. Without that power, locals know there is little they can do. Add to that the fact that they will get almost NO media coverage so people know of their efforts and that is a good part of the explanation why it doesn’t happen.

  2. One thing I notice about Comparison to South Dakota is the same density per mile, approximate same population as NB but nearly 3 times the total acreage. I believe land is money, and apparently Irving did too.
    Because I knew Irving had men on the road constantly and one of their jobs was to report any land deals. Which is why no one lives 1 kilometer away from a piece of Irving property. Which also occurred across Canada, and the U.S.
    Also why you still hear stories of the beating people got from said deals. Which I believe is why so few people in NB had a chance.

  3. In numerous debates on the Urban vs Rural ressource distribution issue, I have always been a firm believer that strong cities eventually means strong rural communities that benefit from supplying labor, secondary-level industries to their larger brother’s economic machine.

    Unfortunately, the downside is that rural communities often only benefit when the cities are in full growth mode and there is enough spinoff for them to benefit, usually late in an economic cycle.

    Hit with the double-whammy of youth out-migration and an growing elderly population needing special care only offered in large centers, rural areas outside immediate economic regions may be on a slippery slide towards lacking the essential components ready to take advantage of the next growth event.

  4. I’d suggest the above is completely wrong. It’s like saying that in order for New Brunswick’s economy to work you need a strong central canada. What about the cases where the nearest city is TAKING the development options from the rural area? Essentially, its the same argument as have give have not provinces-its only when WE are strong, that you can benefit. It’s Reaganomics-the ‘trickle down’ effect, which has long been proven wrong (in fact its never been proven RIGHT).

    A rural area needs VERY little economic development to drive it. Essentially, all it needs is enough jobs for its local population. If lumber and agriculture hadn’t been so corporatized and centralized, it would be a far different story. PEI’s agricultural economy is FAR stronger than New Brunswicks. In Vermont, you essentially have a state made up of small towns, there isn’t a single city over 40,000 people. It’s manufacturing is medium sized businesses, which trade to Quebec, ontario and the states south.

    Especially in today’s economy that is almost a dangerous assertion to make. In fact it really doesn’t make much sense, IF the labour pool is local, and it has secondary industry which service their ‘larger cousins’, then what is the justification that the primary industry itself cannot be located in the rural area? Why can’t the city folk travel to rural areas to work? (they often do in forestry).

    Its only because rural areas are so neglected that the above SEEMS true. Take the data centres David often mentions. All it needs is power (which rural areas have), and enough transmission line for the data (which they usually don’t). The latter is because of policy choices-or lack of them.

    South Dakota, incidentally, was the FIRST state where the local population fought against their government in order to bring direct democracy to their legislature. If you have economic development ideas all you have to do is gather the signatures, and the population votes on it. That’s a far cry from New Brunswick. Just because areas have similarities doesn’t make them even remotely close.

  5. Outlying areas do benefit from large urban centres in terms of economic opportunities. Small businesses (farms, craft operations, or other service providers) in rural areas have additional markets when a large urban centre is within commuting distance. At the same time, rural businesses have access to urban labour pools. ‘Growing’ these urban areas will help ‘grow’ surrounding rural areas, sometimes to the point where the rural areas become suburban then urban. The ‘trickle down’ approach of Reagan et al has nothing to do with this urban-rural dynamic.

    David is correct that the real ‘rural’ development issues in NB have to do with those areas outside of the ‘sphere-of-influence’ of our three largest cities. Some of these areas are truly rural, others are dying or decaying small towns and cities. These small urban areas have problems quite different from the rural areas.

  6. Let me be clear… I believe the rural areas are very much part of our economic fabric, and we all stand to collectively have a highly balanced approach to rural area economic development, and respect the specific caracteristics of each.

    In this new economic world, all our localities need to work under a strategy that encourage collective economic development (ala Atlantica). Rural areas that can take advantage of such frameworks will largely benefit from overall economic activity within larger urban areas that have the most of the infrastructure, producers, and consumers.

    However, pressing infrastructure demands by cities in a fiscally tight environment, and important cumulative demographic decline will further handicap the rural areas, and prevent them from fully taking advantage of such opportunities. Someone will need to make more tough choices at some point.

  7. “Someone will need to make more tough choices at some point”
    That has been my point every time David touches this topic. The tough choice involves cutting NB’s emotional attachment to rural life (and political dependence to rural votes) and do what really makes sense. Everything else is just a waste of time (and taxpayer’s money).

  8. PEI has mortgaged their future. While most provinces balanced their budgets and paid down debt during the recent boom, PEI went even deeper into debt. Yes, they benefit from having provincial status with the population equal to a Toronto condo tower but that only goes so far. They cannot afford to live the way they are living; eventually the cost to service the debt will surpass their tax base and they’ll become a Federal golf retreat.

    PEI may look pretty but when you scratch beneath the surface, it is a pretty poor reference for an economic development blog…..unless of course the efficient extraction of federal funds is considered an economic development success.

  9. EVERY region, state or country has ‘mortgaged’ their future. David has an assertion that more ‘foreign development’ money is necessary to be ‘strong’, but that simply makes a region ‘dependant’ on that foreign investment. If IT goes away,then its no different than if federal money goes away-and at least federal money is nominally protected by the charter. Almost every country in the world has a ‘debt’, but that doesn’t mean their economies are bankrupt. But by the way, I didn’t say PEI, I said PEI’s agricultural sector. Even IT is too highly dependant on one product, but I was talking only about one aspect of it-ownership. However, as David has pointed out, PEI’s technological investments far surpass New Brunswick, particularly given its size.

    As for the rural comments, again, saying something doesn’t make it true. WHERE it is true it is because of conscious policy choices. There is no reason a rural area cannot be ‘self sufficient’-they usually are moreso than urban areas. But essentially its a self fulfilling prophecy-SINCE rural areas need urban areas we should invest in these ‘clusters’ which will strengthen the rural surrounding areas. That’s not true, it simply bleeds them of their labour pool, but by robbing them of industry, you make them dependant on those ‘cottage crafts’ (a scientist would see that right away). If the provincial government put, say, the Department of Natural Resources, with its three hundred staff, in the town of St. Quentin, there’d be almost no need to discuss further economic development there. Simple as that-and its proximity to Edmunston becomes irrelevant.

    The ‘tough choices’ are always recommended ‘for other people’. But again, if New Brunswick doesn’t invest in the north and says ‘we only invest in strong cities so that the communities around them can sell crafts to cityfolk’ then that’s no different than the federation saying the same about New Brunswick. You get the tourists, and some handouts, so there you go, what’s left to complain about?

    I’m not even talking about ‘investing’ though, I’m talking about a simple democratic fact-that people are allowed to decide their own destinies. So when McAdam has its plan developed, and the province says ‘no way’-then you are talkign about something else. It’s no different than if New Brunswick were attempting to get a large investor and the federal government said ‘no way’. That is EXACTLY the same as Reaganomics, in fact Richard even defined it further-the idea that rural areas only develop as ‘craft providers’ of urban folk (which is ludicrous, cottage industries rely on tourism from outside the province and very few have products that are even available in local urban areas which rely on big box stores and imports). You create a dependancy, and then use that ‘apparant’ dependancy to explain why its necessary.

    Here’s a nice example-Sabian Cymbals. Of course people can say “Kedgwick has mortgaged their future” because that is virtually their only export and it has been hit by the worldwide economic freeze. However, they CERTAINLY aren’t dependant on Fredericton. Any exporter today will tell you that you don’t need a local city, most of their shipments go right out of the province. Their supplies are bought online, and their raw materials come from OTHER ‘rural areas’. Somebody may argue that their final customers live in cities, but again, that’s not ‘necessarily’ true, you can buy them online from anywhere.

    So again, just because David ‘now believes’ it, doesn’t make it factual, where it IS fact, it is because of conscious policy choices. Of course NB is a small province, virtually EVERY place in the south is commuting distance to a city, but that doesn’t mean their economic development models are linked to it. Would David actually go into Kouchibouguac village and say “you need to tie your economy to Miramichi”. Of course not. Any exporter there would have far better luck looking at the international market, in fact, its almost David’s mantra that they SHOULD. It’s a global economy dudes, the days of peddling your wares to the locals is over.

  10. “Richard even defined it further-the idea that rural areas only develop as ‘craft providers’ of urban folk ”

    Mikel’s favorite activity is creating strawmen, then knocking them down. I never said that. What I said can be seen in a previous post – urban regions provide markets for rural businesses on the their outskirts. What those businesses choose to offer is up to them; it certainly is not hard to find small businesses in the rural area around F’ton that supply products and services (including crafts) to F’ton. Look at the Boyce Farmers Market for example.

    That relationship has nothing to do with Reagonomics. Where did you get your education? Money poorly spent, apparently.

    `It’s a global economy dudes, the days of peddling your wares to the locals is over.`

    Sorry, but for most small businesses (especially those that deal with products other than information technology), most of their business will be local. That`s why most successful small businesses are located in or near urban areas. For every Sabian there are dozens of small businesses that need the nearby urban market. No one is saying export businesses cannot survive in rural areas; just that urban areas provide markets (and labour pools) to businesses in nearby rural areas.

  11. Mikel says: “If the provincial government put, say, the Department of Natural Resources, with its three hundred staff, in the town of St. Quentin, there’d be almost no need to discuss further economic development there. Simple as that-and its proximity to Edmunston becomes irrelevant.”
    That kind of measure may be good for St. Quentin and Edmundston, but would it be the best economic decision for the NB taxpayer? What happens to the synergies with other federal, provincial, and private stakeholders? It has been said over and over again that one of the key problems of NB is low productivity. Wouldn’t this kind of measure exacerbate the problem? We could start by asking the folks of the Department of Energy in Saint John.

  12. Could not find today’s column titled “Are we urban enough” and have to make do with the above. There is an other alternative to the single urban pole development approach mentioned and this is for a number of urban centres of comparative size and service type, like Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John, to form a geographical & economic alliance, not unlike Raleigh, Durham & Chapel Hill Triangle in North Carolina. When I first moved to NB, back in the early nineties, I & some others launched this approach but it never got off the ground, one reason being that we made it too complex by throwing in the idea of international cities as well. When I look at Halifax, with app. 300K population, that acts as the economic centre of development for NS – with the help of Sidney up in Cape Breton, I see no other option but for F’ton, M’ton & St.-J. to work together as one entity in the southern part of the province while a similar approach is attempted in the North with Miramichi, Bathurst and Edmonston?

  13. @Pierre Vachon
    Pierre’s concept is very good. I am just afraid that the same old problem of NB would get in the way: politics.
    I am convinced that the first step to foster true economic development in NB is to reform the electoral system and amalgamate electoral zones in a way that voters from the same region are “forced” to have common goals. For instance, take electoral districts 2-16 (from and make it one “big” electoral zone with, say, 10 or 15 MLAs. Then we may start to see some changes of behaviour.
    But this is me just dreaming too…

  14. There’s an old saying about university politics: ‘the fight is so ruthless because the rewards are so slight’. Whether its NB and NS fighting over energy ‘wins’, or Fton fighting with Moncton over whatever, we squabble amongst ourselves over peanuts rather than cooperate for the betterment of all. We certainly need to find a way around this; I think it will have to start with a leadership that pushes us hard in that direction, whether we want it or not.

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