In the past few months it has become clear for local governments and community leaders that, in order for Burns Lake to survive and thrive, diversifying the local economy and reinventing the town will be vital.
So can Burns Lake learn from other municipalities that have also been facing similar challenges?
Over the past couple of years, the City of Quesnel has made bold decisions to rebrand the city while investing heavily on infrastructure.
“We know that if we don’t reinvent and refresh the community to meet today’s residents needs and to attract the kind of professionals and entrepreneurs that we need, it becomes a zero-sum game,” said Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson. “If the community feels like it’s not being refreshed and invested in, it’s not very attractive to tell people, ‘Come and invest here.’”
Part of those bold decisions included increasing residential and commercial taxation by 22 per cent over four years.
Simpson, who was elected in 2015 after serving two terms as Cariboo North’s MLA, said the main reason for the tax increase was to reduce the city’s dependence on the forest products industry. At one point, Quesnel received 72 per cent of its property taxation revenue from industry.
“For us, there has been a longstanding desire to reduce the vulnerability that the city has had on its industrial tax base,” said Simpson. “There has been two mill closures already and we don’t know what’s going to happen with others.”
“We went to the taxpayers and said that for the first time ever we would put forward a four-year tax framework,” he continued. “And that these tax increases would go to core infrastructure.”
Meanwhile the city reduced its operating costs by 10 per cent.
“One of the biggest areas that we gutted was the cheques that go to not-for-profit organizations,” said Simpson. “In our principle, people pay their taxes for public services and public infrastructure, not to allow politicians to have photo ops handing out their money to different groups.”
“Politicians make the mistake of thinking that they need to hold the line on taxes, but what people want them to do is hold the line on spending and then explain clearly to them where their tax money is going and how it’s being returned to them in programs, services and infrastructure.”
“And because we’ve been topping up our reserves, we’ve been able to take advantage of any federal or provincial infrastructure programs, because we have our contribution portion and we have the projects ready to go.”
When asked how residents reacted to the four-year tax increase, Simpson said it wasn’t a problem once residents understood where their money was going.
“We had a couple of commercial folks come in and talk to us, but by far the residents have accepted this because we’re investing in this community in a time that desperately needs the investment,” he said. “The connection between our investing in the community and the increase in taxes has been very clear.”
What investments has Quesnel been making?
One of the investments that Quesnel has been making is on playgrounds. The city has decided to replace all current playgrounds that were built more than eight years ago.
“This year we’re putting two brand new ones,” said Simpson. “We have a lot of people driving through Hwy. 97 and we want their kids and their grandkids to say, ‘Hey, that playground in Quesnel is really cool and I want to stop there.’”
“Playgrounds were also important when we were doing our doctor recruitment because many of these doctors were coming with young families, and it’s a signal to those families that we want modern amenities, fine amenities, that we are open and attractive.”
The city has also created a “housing attraction bylaw,” which gives a 10-year tax forgiveness to developers in certain areas of the town.
“We have two main designated areas in our community that we want to entice development,” said Simpson. “We want to have accessible, adaptable and affordable housing for a range of target groups.”
“We’ve actually got under 100 brand new units of everything – from seniors housing to housing for people with physical disabilities – and it’s all going to be breaking ground this spring.”
In 2018, the city will also be investing $3 million in its downtown core.
“It’s going to allow us to streetscape our main downtown area and completely modernize it, meet accessibility requirements, make it more people centric and less car centric and ramp it up in terms of its attractiveness and its uniqueness.”
But Simpson said none of these investments would be effective if they weren’t tied to the city’s rebranding initiative, which includes increasing the city’s web presence.
“We used to be a service centre for the mining industry, and now we are moving into a modern, fresh brand,” he said.
“We want to be a fun, sustainable, trailblazing and accessible community,” he continued. “This has galvanized our community around how do we live that brand and it’s been 100 per cent taken by our business community, and they are excited about it.”
“It’s a real shot in the arm to the community that while we addressed this forestry dependence and transition, we are absolutely reinventing the community and attracting new residents and investors.”
Recruitment of doctors and other professionals
Perhaps the clearest sign that Quesnel might be on the right track has been with its recruitment of doctors.
In the past couple of years, the city has recruited 13 general practice physicians, a surgeon and other specialists, bringing the total number of doctors in Quesnel to 28. A major part of that success involved hiring a full-time healthcare recruiter.
“She is a major piece of our success because she focuses on landing the entire family,” explained Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson. “She finds out what the spouse and the kids want and she meets them all at the airport, she stays in touch with them as they settle into the community.”
The city’s healthcare recruiter was so successful that Quesnel has asked for provincial funding to hire another professional recruiter. This new recruiter would apply that same model to recruit other professionals – for both private and public sectors – to meet the city’s demands.
Simpson said Quesnel has decided to work with Northern Health to “take the doctor recruitment issue head on.” In conjunction with Northern Health, the city has built a new primary care facility.
“At the end of the day, our responsibility is to ensure that the community is sustainable,” said Simpson. “Having doctors in our community and a robust healthcare system is part of a sustainable community.”
Quesnel’s advice to other municipalities
Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson said municipalities can’t rely on the provincial and federal governments for leadership.
“The big focus for councils these days is that there really isn’t leadership from federal and provincial governments anymore,” he said. “They barely have programs that you can count on from one year to the next.”
“Our council made the decision that we were community leaders; we had to have a vision for the community and it was really up to us to drive that vision and make things happen,” he continued.
“Don’t worry so much about the problems, but focus on the solution and the vision that you have for the community and drive that vision, and the others will come to the table.”