Northern B.C. 'is the future' (The Province)

The man who heads Prince George’s economic development agency sees blue-sky potential in a region where many southerners might see only economic sunsets.

“The resource-based economy in the north is not the past, it’s the future,” McEwan says. “The potential for this region is staggering. It’s not just good or solid, it’s staggering.”

There’s a catch, of course: the north can harness its resource potential only if government invests in infrastructure that links it to the rest of the world. McEwan, 41, will promote the region’s promise and push its infrastructure wish list in speeches this week in Prince George, Vancouver and Prince Rupert.

It won’t be a tough sell in the North, but the Initiatives Prince George CEO may need to offer some basic education to enlighten insular Lower Mainland minds.

Some people among McEwan’s Vancouver audience may be surprised to learn how far down the path of economic diversification the North has already gone.

A decade ago, forestry accounted for 36 per cent of economic activity in the Prince George area. That’s down to 28 per cent today.

The 80,000-person city’s dependence on forestry has been eased by the growing clout of its health services workforce, retail and transportation industries and the education sector radiating from the University of Northern B.C.

“Prince George is a town that has everything going for it,” McEwan says. “We’ve got all the attributes to be a much bigger city than we are – and that’s our aspiration and collective resolve.”

Thanks to the mountain pine beetle epidemic and the crash of the U.S. home-building market, Prince George’s jobless rate stands at about 12 per cent - compared with 7.8 per cent provincially. But the forest-industry crunch would have spelled a higher unemployment rate a decade ago when the city lacked its current diversity, he says. “We’re no longer exactly a resource-based community,” he says. “We’re much more broadly based.”

To be sure, some of Prince George’s sisters among the 40 communities of the north have been hit harder by forestry’s troubles, McEwan says.

But forest companies’ drive to wring costs out of their operations will benefit the industry when lumber prices recover, he says.

The bio-fuel potential of beetle-killed trees is just one part of the north’s multi-faceted potential McEwan will highlight in his speeches. The shale gas fields of the Northeast hold enormous potential, as does the port of Prince Rupert, which is some 58 hours closer to Asia than other West Coast ports, he says.

Along the planned Highway 37 transmission line – which Ottawa announced last week it would partly fund – there is potential for $15 billion worth of mining projects, McEwan says. The North needs more government investments along the lines of the feds’ $130-million contribution towards the transmission line, he argues.

Near the top of his list are improvements to Highway 97 along the Pine Pass from Prince George to Dawson Creek. McEwan hopes to see the rail overpasses raised and hairpin turns softened to let B.C. suppliers get machinery to the gas fields without detouring through Alberta.

“It’s ridiculous that we can’t access our own gas fields with some of the equipment we need to move.”

The Cariboo Connector, a 463-km stretch of Highway 97 from Cache Creek to Prince George, must be expanded to four lanes by 2020, he says. And Highway 16 from Prince Rupert to Alberta eventually needs to be four-laned, he says.

The expanded Prince George airport – it has Canada’s third longest commercial runway – has postioned itself to become a fuelling and technical stop on the circumpolar route from China’s Pearl River delta to Chicago.

To hasten the airport’s evolution into an intermodal transportation hub, McEwan wants to see funding committed to building the 6.6-km Boundary Road connector.

“We need to do these things to unleash our full potential,” McEwan says. “We are determined that this next decade will be a northern decade for all British Columbians.” … story.html

So much of what the speaker describes as ‘economic diversification’ is public sector activity that consumes or circulates wealth originating from elsewhere rather than creates it. Also, both government and the retail sector have become more centralized, and PG has benefited from those trends.  But much of that has been at the expense of smaller communities that have seen government offices close or downsize, and downtowns decline. I think that he is looking at the Northwest very much from a PG rather than regional perspective.

I have spent a lot of time in PG and still like going there, but overall I do not see things getting better. The unemployment rate is high and getting worse as mills close down, the level of criminal activity gives cause for concern, and its air quality is still unhealthy. 

Maybe that’s because forestry is way down.