McQUARRIE – High-tech, resource industries, tourism can coexist

This is the post excerpt.

 

KAMLOOPS — I’m a curious kind of guy and have noticed that whenever we talk about diversifying our local economy, the conversation quickly goes off track as people respond with something along the lines of, “True, but we can’t live on tourism jobs alone.”

My curiosity makes me wonder why.  Why do we always fall back on that as being the only possible outcome of a diversified economy?

Tourism is and will continue to be an important part of the economic mix for this City. The keyword is mix but that is ignored when someone inevitably whines about how we can’t survive on tourists and/or minimum wage jobs alone.

Everyone nods their head in agreement, murmurs a few platitudes and reminisces about the good old days. Often, if the energy level is high, a committee is struck, a community task force that will lobby government for more access to…whatever the resource du jour is at that moment in time.

It’s a given that this conversation will go nowhere.  A delegation will eventually fly over to Victoria, where they will listen to supportive MLA’s and Ministers agree with everything being said.  The committee will fly home that evening with promises that Deputy Ministers and industry specialists will get to work on it.  They never do until a couple of years later when a brand new committee arrives in town and the cycle renews itself.

It could be said that Ajax is in many respects the unplanned child of this lacklustre approach to economic diversification.  Over a decade of following this unimaginative ‘slow and steady’ promise has left us with little more than a deeply divided City with little or no alternatives.

As sure as we know a 100% tourism based economy is a fallacy, so too is a 100% resource based economy. Yet this uninspired and unproductive approach to economic diversification has made us easy pickings, a town to be exploited by people who will never live here.

We pay lip service to diversification but do little that is substantive.  In fact, like many of you, I’ve been wondering how different the Ajax story would be if we had been doing more than just studies on average wages and reports on development land availability.

Over these same years, Kamloops could have been moving into the high paying knowledge based economy but chose instead to do nothing.  In its place our political leaders entered into a multi-year discussion with a Polish based mining company that may result in an open pit mine being created beside our City.

In the process they have divided the community like no other administration has been capable of doing.

Instead of fracturing our community, why weren’t we developing new opportunities and relationships with non-destructive industries in the high-tech and alternative energy industries?

Diversifying our economy doesn’t mean ignoring the resource sector.  Instead it could mean developing symbiotic relationships with existing resource industries.  It could even be something as straightforward as transferring waste heat from data centres to pulp mills needing that energy to manufacture paper.  Make it a loop by returning cold water to the data centre and you are suddenly reducing a carbon footprint through recycled energy.

Take a moment to consider the possibilities of having and growing industries and high paying jobs that do not need or exploit the one time use of a natural resource.  They are more resistant to and independent of world commodity prices.  They create as opposed to destroy.  They add value and export a finished product as opposed to shipping out raw materials. They are often complementary to established industry.  They create a legacy that grows a community beyond just two decades.

Drive through dozens of once thriving resource extraction towns in BC, Washington and Oregon and you will see how the future will treat us if we do nothing but follow our current path.

 

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.

McQUARRIE – We need to think outside the box on growing our local economy

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.

McQUARRIE – Follow the money in the flawed Kamloops recycling regime

KAMLOOPS — Does the City of Kamloops, or should I say, Kamloops City Council actually believe in and support recycling, or are they in it just for the money?

I ask, as it seems the City still wants our annual recycling fee but doesn’t want to actually collect everything that could be recycled. They also assume we all have a vehicle and will happily take what they, the City, refuse to collect, to one of three private recyclers.

It seems they want our “recycle” money while simultaneously reducing the actual service and harming our environment. Then they want us to use our vehicles and spend more money driving across town to the private recycler who will likely make us stand in line and pay us nothing. And finally, adding insult to injury, they will fine anyone who puts the wrong recyclables in the curb-side recycle bin they forced us to use in the first place.

They also seem to be quite serious about the ‘enforcement’ of this recycling policy and have actually hired people to inspect your recycle bin. The recycling enforcement patrol will check out and put stickers on your bins and warn and/or fine you if you were careless enough to have broken the rules.

It would seem City Council is intent on making sure you never put recyclable goods in your recyclable bin that are not preapproved and pre-inspected by the City. Does it not seem a touch on the ludicrous side that we are paying people to make sure we are not recycling glass and thin film plastics? Some might even call this a big step backwards.

Glass and thin film plastics are items that will remain in our landfill forever, something our recycling program once diverted through our homegrown recycling program. Worse yet, you will be punished if you actually attempt to be a good citizen of planet Earth and recycle.

The sad truth is that most people will stop recycling these items and will instead toss those recyclables into the garbage, which according to the City, is legal and perfectly acceptable.

When I am confused by questionable government decisions and want to try and figure out why, I find it helpful to go back to the old journalistic proverb, ‘follow the money’. Right now, the money trail leads to a new annual payment to the City of $1,000,000.00 from Recycle BC (a business consortium) that is now added to the City’s continued collection of recycle fees on our utility bill. A bit of taxpayer double-dipping by government.

Recycle BC, formerly known as Multi Material BC, is the creation of our provincial government. It was their attempt to make industries that manufacture or package using materials that are recyclable, responsible for the collection and recycle costs. The province, in its wisdom, decided to encourage all municipalities to abandon whatever solutions they were using and instead, sign a contract with Recycle BC. The carrot was the promise to pay an annual fee to each municipality that signed on. And the cost was the new business-like approach of only accepting profitable and easily handled recyclables.

I asked Acting Mayor Arjun Singh about the decisions that led to this situation and specifically why homeowners are still being charged the utility fee. The Mayor explained the continuation of fees as being the result of the recycling program starting in the spring and an inability by the City to make the necessary changes to stop charging homeowners until next year’s budget for 2018.

Mr. Singh went on to explain that City Council is aware of the problems and Council will be reviewing the recycling program later this fall and has several options to consider, including doing nothing while continuing to collect the million as well as the utility fees, something that I feel is unlikely. Another option would be to refund this year’s fees and cease billing on our 2018 utility charges. Or it could bring back a separate curbside recycling program to include those items now forbidden, including bio waste such as lawn clippings, leaves etc.

So what would you like to see the City do? Here’s your opportunity to congratulate them on a job well done and a plan well implemented. Or offer some suggestions and encouragement on how best to untangle the inequities of this recycling mess we now find ourselves in.

McQUARRIE – Prince George proves free downtown parking can work

KAMLOOPS — Let’s ban parking meters from downtown! Okay, now that I have your attention let me add, I’m serious.

Parking generates approximate $1.2 million in revenue for the City. Serious money indeed, and it might even cover the city’s payroll for four or possibly five days out of the year. But it is also a source of frustration for many and missed sales for downtown merchants.

Besides, you might be interested to know we wouldn’t be the first to abolish the long-despised meter or the less than user-friendly Kamloops parking kiosk. Prince George decided it would be a step in the right direction and made it part in their downtown revitalization plans. In the process, they learned a few lessons, made some adjustments, did some fine-tuning and, in the end, came up with a free parking system that works well.

Prince George began its meter-free program by imposing a 3-hour parking limit in the downtown core. To manage the time restrictions, bylaw officers began to chalk tires and would issue tickets to anyone staying beyond the limit.

Unfortunately, they quickly discovered that a number of employees in the area took to using it as all day free parking and just before time was up, they’d dash outside to wash the chalk off their tire. A city staffer noted in a report that one restaurant in particular took it a step further and had staff going out to remove the chalk from customer vehicles.

So something had to change. But rather than the easy route of falling back to meters for everyone, the city purchased a vehicle able to drive along the streets taking photos of plates. A few hours later, the city vehicle would return and, if it found matching plates at the same location, a ticket would be issued.

To help encourage motorist honesty, fines for parking violations were also increased. That, in turn, helped make up for some of the lost meter revenue.

The city went a step further by having affordably priced all day parking lots in the core downtown area.

Kamloops, of course, is not known for innovative thinking or actions, especially when it comes to parking. Creative solutions and edgy thinking are not words that come to mind when I’m asked to define city council.

Our current, maybe-well-sort-of-but-I-might-resign-in-a-few-weeks-mayor-for-the-moment answer to most questions involving money has always been something like, “What service or program do you want to give up in order to implement this idea?” Which begs the question, why hasn’t he been thinking of ways to make things better and shouldn’t he be answering that question? Call me crazy, but I was under this foolish impression that we elected politicians to come up with ideas, not toss questions back in our faces.

If Prince George can do it, then we should be able to find a way to make it happen here. For the cautious, shy, don’t rock the boat politician, why not at least try it out for a summer? You already have a working model in a similar sized city with most of the bugs taken care of.

It’s the busy tourist season and what a great way to bring them downtown. People would start dropping into town to enjoy a coffee or lunch on a sidewalk patio and maybe hang around for some shopping afterwards.

Those who own businesses or buildings downtown are paying some of the highest tax dollars around. Maybe this would be a good way to keep them here and invested in the community and our future. How many empty stores or offices do you need downtown before that $1.2 million in parking meter revenue becomes penny wise but pound foolish?

I’m tired of local politicians who can’t find it within them to champion causes, reform and new ideas. If you think free parking downtown is a stupid idea and bad for local business, step up to the soapbox and say so. On the other hand, if there’s even the slightest chance the idea might have some legs, then make it your idea and make it work.

A meterless downtown levels the playing field for merchants, attracts visitors, creates a real sense of vibrancy and could become an initiative that kick starts redevelopment and growth in the core of our city.

McQUARRIE – New RIH parking payment system a backwards step

KAMLOOPS — As I entered the hospital parking lot I was reminded of Richard Dawkins’ quote that went something like, “Don’t ask God to cure cancer and world poverty.  He’s too busy finding you a parking space.”

This day being Monday, Dec. 12 was also the first day the hospital parking system returned to the old practice of gouging patients and visitors alike.  Today was a freebee, IHA’s way of gently welcoming you back to those days of yesteryear and estimating and prepaying for the time you would be spending in their care.

Guess how long your visit or procedure would be, tack on an estimate for the yet to be determined delays, toss in a quick parking lot anger management session, remember your license plate number and pull out your credit card because this is going to cost you.

Speaking of that credit card, keep in mind the machine taking your money was provided by the lowest bidder, so is apt to have trouble reading the chip on your credit card.  More stress and more time, which is just how a visit to the hospital should begin.

Now, I don’t mind paying for parking, even in a building that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for my tax dollars.  However, I do mind and mind very much being taken to the cleaners as a result of inept management by a team of IHA executives.

Like that old movie, ‘The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight’, this gang who couldn’t build a simple garage has messed things up with just about every step.

Garage exits too narrow?  Tear out one of those exits.

Can’t make a left turn onto Columbia St?  Build a roundabout on 5th Avenue that at times is near impossible to get to from the RIH garage.

Lose parking revenue?  Go back to the pre-pay system.

Declare a waiting-in-line-to-exit state of emergency and utter chaos (it once took someone nearly 60 seconds to make it out) and blame it on the old payment system.

The practice of paying for the exact time you occupied one of those parking spaces is an ancient practice, dating way back to the 1900s and still works today, at least everywhere except the Interior Health Authority’s parking lot.

The IHA has reverted to the excess revenue generating system of guess your time and pay in advance.  It forces one to overestimate the time needed and pay for it in order to avoid an even more expensive parking ticket.

IHA loves it as it turns a parking space into a billable hours model.  By that I mean, a space worth say $2 an hour when on the ‘time used’ system can actually generate something like $2.75 to $3.95 when on the usurious prepay system.

This happens because just about everyone will pay for more time than actually needed or used. You leave with time still remaining, the next car takes your already paid for space, pays again and as fast as a cabinet minister can say double dipping, that little old parking space is raking in the cash.  And it was done by pilfering a bit of your money and a bit of the next guy’s and so on.

It’s a little sleight of hand that takes a dollar here and 50 cents there. However, going by IHA figures, it’s possible that in the past this accounted for upwards of 35 per cent of their parking revenue.  It obviously pays to take the patient to the cleaners.

The short-lived system of paying for time used was not billable hours friendly, so like that extra exit lane it had to go.  It seems the Gang Who Couldn’t Build a Garage wants the old ways of taking your money to return.  In so doing they don’t seem to care it’s a hospital and they’re taking you for a financial ride during what is usually one of the more stressful times in your life.

It is a model that preys upon your vulnerable state of mind by adding the fear of a hefty parking ticket to all your other hospital visit worries.  You solve that parking ticket worry by giving the IHA more money than required.  They know most of you will do it and they happily take advantage of that knowledge.