Training And Infrastructure Spending Urged At Northern Economic Summit

January 23, 2009

View this article online:  Prince George Citizen
Written by Gordon Hoekstra
Citizen staff
Friday, 23 January 2009

Northern BC business and community leaders sent a message Friday at Premier Gordon Campbell’s economic summit that they are prepared to meet the current economic challenges head on, but expect the province to help by investing in infrastructure and training.

Northern Development Initiative Trust CEO Janine North rolled out a 15-point plan which calls on the province to do everything from cutting the mine regulatory review process in half to starting a centre to train dentists in Fort St. John.

"Making the next decade the northern decade is the best investment to ensure long-term provincial prosperity," said North, stressing it is the North that is the wealth generator of the province.

North gave the province credit for creating the Northern Development Initiative Trust, under which northern communities manage $185 million for economic development projects, but she said the government must examine closely why it is working and how to replicate the success in other areas.

Other items in North’s 15-point plan included increasing the current $110-million Build Canada fund for municipal infrastructure within 90 days, and creating 1,000 new full-time training seats in areas like engineering, mining, information systems, nursing and trades.

She also called for upgrades to Highway 97, south to Cache Creek and north to Dawson Creek. Also on the list are investments to increase bulk-handling port capacity in northwest B.C., and a northern forest products and bioenergy innovation centre at UNBC.

"Remove barriers and invest in a knowledge-based resource economy connected to the world, and we will take this province into a prosperous future," North told the 400 delegates at the summit.

Mayor Dan Rogers said the city has created some solid foundations on which to build the economy, including an expanded airport, but there are also lingering issues that need to be dealt with that could otherwise hamper the region’s ability to recover.

Rogers said work still needs to be done on resolving aboriginal land title issues, as well as ensuring there is a vibrant silviculture sector to help grow healthy forests. Also on Rogers’ list was ensuring diversification occurs that is linked to the the resource economy. For example, instead of importing equipment, build that equipment here, he suggested.

Rogers also said he is supportive of UNBC’s plan to launch a foundation to drive more research to the North and connect that research to industry and communities. It’s also important to focus on building livable cities that attract residents, he said.

"We’re in difficult economic times, but I have absolutely no doubt that those in this room and many more who are out there, will provide the leadership to get us through this current storm," said Rogers. "For, anyone who has spent any time in the North will understand that it is in our nature to look beyond the challenges, and see only opportunity."

Kitimat mayor Joanne Monaghan said it is time for more government investment to flow to the North. She pointed to the Centre for Advanced Wood Processing at UBC in Vancouver, and questioned why it was not located in the North.

The summit took place against the backdrop of a sobering economic climate in the North.

Northern B.C. has been hit hard by a forestry downturn that is already three-years old. More than 3,000 mill and forestry workers have lost their jobs, some permanently, because of a collapse in U.S. housing and slowing demand for newsprint in North America.

More recently, the mining and oil and gas sectors have also begun to slow, a response to a more general global downturn brought on by tightening credit and stocks market decreases around the world.

Campbell capped off the two-day summit by saying he was impressed by the fact northerners are always willing to roll up their sleeves and get work done.

He acknowledged it was going to be a tough year.

Campbell has already announced a 10-point plant to help reduce the impact of the slowing economy, which includes accelerated infrastructure spending. While he made no announcements at the summit, he hinted that he was readying a 90-day plan. He also gave support for items like creating a bioenergy research centre at UNBC.

"Because of your strategic plan, because of the ideas you have come up with over the last couple of days, but frankly because of the work you have done over the last number of years, you have an incredibly bright future here," said Campbell.

NDP forestry critic Bob Simpson said while it is fine to plan for the future, he saw nothing that would provide immediate relief to workers and communities during the two-day event.

He commended Rogers and North for their presentation Friday morning, saying within it was a foundation that could help the region economically.

Simpson, a Quesnel resident and the Cariboo North MLA, said that if those ideas and items end up in the federal and provincial government’s economic stimulus packages, the summit will have had merit. "But that remains to be seen," he said.