McQUARRIE – Is economic decline the product of slow and steady leadership?

KAMLOOPS — I sometimes wonder if I’d have anything to write about on our local economy were it not for Ajax.

What if 15 or so years ago, the City had set course on a different path? A path that recognized we needed to begin preparing for a new future or be left behind to become a mostly abandoned resource town that people pass through on their way to somewhere else.

Last week I wrote about fixed attitudes and preconceived notions about economic development along with an unwillingness to face changing realities. At coffee shops or online, I hear people proudly and rightfully so, talk of our past successes and how natural resources were the economic backbone of our City.

I also hear token platitudes about economic diversification but never backed with concrete ideas or the kind of leadership to make it happen. Election cycles, political polarization, self-interest and social media trolls are not fertile and supportive ground for visionary politicians. For example:

You are likely unaware that about 6 years ago, DigiPen Institute of Technology https://www.digipen.edu was looking for a Canadian university partner.

Base in Redmond WA, DigiPen is one of the world’s leading educators with degree studies in animation, simulation, game design, audio engineering and computer science. Their students are some of the most sought after graduates in the high paying gaming, simulation and new media industries.

We were offered an opportunity for a co-op degree program at TRU that would also include major industry players setting up satellite operations in Kamloops. Education and high paying jobs waiting for graduates here in Kamloops.

It would take several years to set up, require an investment in time and resources and need the support of both the university and the City. DigiPen spent over a year answering questions, hosting campus tours and in the end, was willing to sign a memorandum of understanding.

It died from lack of interest and initiative from Kamloops. Worse yet, no future administration picked up the ball and attempted to get the parties back to the table. As a result, Kamloops lost its’ chance to become the Canadian leader in the high tech, high profile and high paying digital media industry.

DigiPen went on to open new campuses in Spain and Singapore while we were left to a coming future of arguing over a Kamloops open pit mine.

What were our community and civic leaders thinking? Where were the business groups like the Chamber and why weren’t they lining up to demand the City and university make this venture happen?

Instead we were and are lazily complacent and seem a bit too eager to sell off our future for an immediate and short-term gain.

If you want to work with industry, why not with a partner such as Fortis on a project to capture the existing energy in our landfill and do something innovative like, heat TRU? Methane is similar enough to natural gas as to be a perfect substitution and if we did a demonstration project like this, we could sell the knowhow and technology around the world.

We have two data centres generating a tremendous amount of heat as a bi product of their cooling system. That heat is currently wasted, yet we have a paper mill in search of and investing vast sums for heat. Why aren’t we looking at a unique industrial/tech sector partnership that circulates and exchanges that wasted energy resource? Cool water up to the data centres and hot water back to the mill in a synergy styled partnership that bridges the divide between heavy industry and high technology.

Then there’s the failed Performing Arts Centre that continues to languish unless someone has the courage and political will to try something daring like a land swap. Trade the School Board’s Henry Grube Centre for the City’s Kamloops Daily News site.

Anchor the eastern end of Tranquille Rd. by building a riverside PAC while bringing the school board and IT centre downtown to Seymour St.

Help recover costs by partnering with a hotel for the PAC. Then keep the seating down to a community supportable/affordable 500 and toss in an outdoor amphitheatre for events such as Project X.

Back on Seymour St., build a couple of floors of condos above the new School Board office. Add several classrooms for extended education and night school and suddenly you have an expanded workforce, students and residents supporting downtown merchants throughout the day and evening.

These could be centrepieces that finally unite north and south shores with a downtown vibrancy that is shared on both sides of the river.

And speaking of downtown, why can’t we dedicate all or a sizable portion of Stuart Wood to a new downtown company and job creating incubation centre for alternative energy solutions?

Partner and share costs with energy suppliers like BC Hydro and Fortis along with large energy dependent industries in need of renewable energy solutions. Bring in tech start-up assistance from specialist groups like Western Economic Diversification, BC Innovation Council and…Well you get the idea.

I saw this happening in of all places, Grand Forks, North Dakota where the university became a recognized national leader in green energy solutions and now attracts leading scientists and businesses from around the world.

For those who don’t know, Grand Forks is a small city, beside a river with a university. Sound familiar?

These are not necessarily the ideas to move forward on but had we started this process at the turn of the millennium, I doubt we’d be faced with the economic choices confronting us today.

Seventeen years of doing nothing, having no actionable plan with measurable milestones, lacking the required will and courage and having no vision has brought us to this point.

Is decline the product of slow and steady? If not, it has at its best, now forced us into decisions that ignore and have the potential to put into peril, the long term future and well-being of the City.

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