When the B.C. government decided to take its $25 million rural dividend fund and give it instead to communities losing their sawmills, Castlegar and 337 other communities were left with projects on hold or cancelled altogether.
The rural dividend fund was reallocated to a $69 million assistance fund to be paid out over two years. Four communities that have seen a permanent closure or indefinite curtailment of their mills will be the principal recipients — Quesnel, Chasm, Vavenby and Fort St. James.
The move by the B.C. NDP sparked backlash from many communities with grant applications submitted to the fund and a number of them voiced their displeasure at last month’s Union of B.C. Municipalities conference.
The project Castlegar had applied for was a joint effort with RDCK Areas I and J to develop an in-depth economic development strategic plan.
“We need to set a direction for economic development in the coming years,” explained Castlegar’s CAO Chris Barlow.
The application was for about $300,000 with additional funds sought from Columbia Basin Trust and each partner. Completing the plan would have been a multi-year task.
The stated purpose of the rural development fund is to provide grants to communities with populations of less than 25,000 to strengthen and diversify their local economies. And Castlegar’s application was designed to do just that.
“We want to know — what are our strengths, what are our weaknesses, what do we want to target?” said Barlow. “What fits into our vision for the region?”
The process would look at things like how the local forest industry could be strengthened and diversified.
“By strengthening our core, we are actually diversifying our economy by hopefully attracting continually innovative companies that are going to build off of our strengths — pulp, paper, fibre, timber,” said Barlow.
It would also look at what other kinds of industries could be attracted to the area in order to diversify the economy further. In the end there would be a master plan with a play book and implementation guide to help steer future decisions.
While losing out on the funding is disappointing, both Barlow and Castlegar’s economic development manager, Mark Laver, emphasized it is not devastating.
“We all agree that it is good that the government is doing something for those communities, because they are challenged,” said Laver. “But ultimately, our proposal was to diversify our economy to open up other sectors in addition to the forest sector.
“So the irony is that we were working on a plan to expand our economy beyond forestry products and we got shut down and that is what the government is trying to do for these other other communities that the funds are now going to — retrain people and create other industries.”
“We feel our application … aligns with what the province is struggling with right now — a downturn in the forest economy,” added Barlow. “The old way of doing things is not the future. As communities, as industry and government we need to transition and innovate and look for new technologies. We were really trying to support that and become a hub for that type of innovation.”
Laver says that on the positive side, the grant application process was a good exercise in planning how to move forward, thinking through ideas and looking at what direction the city wants to take as far as economic development.
The city and its regional partners will now have to determine what the next steps will be, but without the grant funding, it will most likely have to be a very scaled down version of the original project.