KAMLOOPS — Back around 2008, I was asked for my thoughts on the local economy and what new ideas I might have about diversifying our economy. Everyone else at the table was talking high tech and manufacturing but not providing specific examples or even a back of the envelope action plan, so I decided to take a completely different approach.
I mentioned the wine industry, suggesting our south facing slopes were likely ideal for vineyards. It was a renewable, non-polluting use of an existing resource, with an established and proven market. It could be scaled to allow for gradual growth and many varietals had already been proven to be well suited to our area.
When I looked out to the audience I could see that not mentioning Microsoft, assembly lines, forestry or mining had not gone over well. As if to prove the point, the following morning, the media’s response was polite but dismissive of the idea as being the product of an overactive imagination. Kamloops was they implied, a blue-collar town and a wine industry based here would never fly, let alone be accepted.
Of course jump forward several years and as you now enter the City, you are greeted with signs welcoming you to and encouraging you to stop and travel the wine trails of Kamloops.
I remember this particular event as it seemed to and perhaps still does, encapsulate many a view of economic diversification in Kamloops. If it’s different, involves out of comfort zone thinking, is new and doesn’t involve at least one resource sector, than it’s treated with suspicion at best.
For instance, and sticking with agriculture for a moment, what if I suggested we be the first City in Canada to start a farm-gate based micro craft beer industry? Crazy no?
Think of the wine industry in Kelowna but instead of grape vines, we grow hop vines and brew on-site, a selection of unique beers. We would end up having craft brew tours going from farm to farm with tasting bars at each stop, on-site restaurants, product sales and a new self-sustaining industry.
Same concept, different product, a niche market and we’ve already proven that hops do well in the Kamloops region. It employs skilled and unskilled labour. TRU could offer brew master diploma programs, science degree majors in the chemistry of brewing and begin developing new, unique and patentable yeasts. It becomes a crossover industry as it sets up a new tourism product that can be marketed internationally. It establishes Kamloops as the leader in this market and first to market should be able to hold a dominant position for years to come.
We need to start thinking outside of our pre conceived ideas about Kamloops as the writing is on the wall for our economy. By that I mean the reason so many people are forced to travel for work is that job availability in the resource sector is becoming increasingly slim. Not so much because that sector is shrinking but because so much of the actual work is being automated.
Think about how many man-hours have been lost to the feller buncher. One man, one machine has replaced entire crews. One man at a mill, sitting in a control booth above the floor can use a laser to size and determine best cuts for a log faster and with greater dollar for dollar efficiency than an entire crew that once worked on the floor below.
The technology we see in driverless cars is being adapted for ore moving dump trucks. Robots build your cars. We avoid supporting local merchants by buying products online that for the most part are shipped to us using automation. We avoid using our local bank when we do all our banking online. We use drive thrus for convenience. When is the last time a real person with a real voice answered your service or inquiry call?
Convenience, efficiency and speed are not just the domain of your employer. We have all contributed to job losses, most resulting from our use of technology. Yet we blame others for using technology to eliminate our well-paid job in the resource sector.
That is wrong at any number of levels but if we are going to change it then we have to start thinking about work and what can be done to create meaningful employment that will bring spouses back.
Even if Ajax goes ahead and as the Chamber says, we end up supporting (not necessarily creating) 10,000 jobs across all of Canada (not just in Kamloops), it’s still only a few who will be lucky enough to get a job here at the mine.
If the mine goes through it will be like winning the lottery for a few while several thousand more will have to remain content with wishing and dreaming. Win or lose, is that really a viable way to run our City?
So why are we spending so much time on something that may or may not happen? It’s a classic case of diversion that pushes a multinational’s corporate agenda by using promises of a return to the good old days.
Instead, we should really be doing something about the City’s future that involves more than a fingers crossed approach to economic development.
Next week – New media/game development, energy, partnerships, fine arts and the performing arts as economic development engines.