Q&A with Smithers’ Economic Development Officer, Allan Stroet

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Winter is on its way, when northern British Columbian’s thoughts begin to shift to the slopes. And where’s a better place to test out the pristine powder then on Smithers’ very own Hudson Bay Mountain? We got together with Allan Stroet, Smithers’ Economic Development Officer, for a chat about Smithers’ economy, growth and increasing tourism base.

Q: What drives you to be so involved in your community and northern B.C.?

A: I am very involved in Smithers and northern B.C. because I love it here. I don’t want to live anywhere else. I’ve turned down several lucrative job offers from other places because this is my home. I’m from Smithers, but left after high school to my pursue post-secondary education at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. I met my wife there and we were happy in Prince George, but we are even happier to be back in the Bulkley Valley.

Currently, I volunteer as a Senator for UNBC because it’s my way of giving back to a school that has given me so much. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for UNBC.

Q: How much growth have you seen in Smithers’ local economy over the last decade? What’s driving it?

A: Smithers has seen a slight increase in population over the past 10 years, driven mainly by the price of mineral resources during the last decade. Recently though, the mineral exploration sector has suffered and it has affected local businesses. Has it hurt? Yes. Has it been devastating? No. Saying that, there have been a great deal of housing starts, commercial renovations, and over the past few years there has been an opening up of industrial land at the Smithers Regional Airport.

When it comes to the economy, Smithers is an interesting place. We don’t fit the standard mold when it comes to your typical northern B.C. local economy. Economically, we are very steady, relative to other communities, because we are not reliant on a single industry. Would Smithers be labelled a sawmill town? Maybe. A tourist town? Sort of. A government town? Perhaps. A mining town? Possibly. We aren’t dominated by one industry and that keeps our economy from suffering the booms and busts that are common in some of northern B.C.’s communities.

Q: Northern Development Initiative Trust contributed $18,000 in grant funding through its Marketing Initiatives program to assist with the Ski and Stay Smithers program. What is this program and how has it helped to boost the local economy and increase tourism?

A: The Ski and Stay program is a joint program between The Hudson Bay Lodge, Aspen Inn and Suites, Hudson Bay Mountain Adventures (the ski hill), and Tourism Smithers to promote Hudson Bay Mountain Resort for weekend getaways. We were very grateful to the Northern Development Initiative Trust in supporting the project as well. Winter is generally a slower period for hoteliers so the program helps to promote the mountain as a getaway ski destination, which in turns benefits business at the partner hotels and local shops and restaurants. Each partner contributes several thousand dollars to increase marketing activities for a combined benefit. This spirit of collaboration for the good of each party involved is a common occurrence in Smithers.

Q:What do you think has been the Town of Smithers’ most valuable economic achievement to date?

A: There are four companies that jump to mind as far as economic achievements. All-West Glass, Bandstra Transportation Systems, Central Mountain Air, and Hy-Tech Drilling are companies that employ hundreds of people regionally, provincially, nationally, and internationally. These four companies are each homegrown from Smithers, and still have their head offices here. Not only do they set an example of what is possible in a community of only 5,500 people, but also show the next generation of entrepreneurs that you don’t have to leave Smithers to achieve lofty business goals.

These four companies separate Smithers from other places, because it’s so rare to see such large scale successes happen in a small community. I’ve talked to several site selectors who don’t believe it, and are even more shocked when it’s shown to be true. It draws attention to our town in a special way that not everyone is able to achieve.

Q: Smithers has recently joined Small Town Love and Northern Development’s Love Smithers campaign. How has joining Small Town Love supported Smithers’ local business community?

A: The Small Town Love program has been excellent for our community. Smithers has always done its best to shop local, but there was never such a convenient way to find what you were looking for. It has brought many locally owned and operated businesses out of the woodwork that people may not have known about.

When we started with the program, we were hoping for 40 businesses to sign up. Today we have 80. The ability for these businesses to get professional photography, writing, and an online presence for such an affordable fee has been great!

Q: What challenges does the Town of Smithers face from an economic development perspective and how are you addressing them?

A: There are many challenges in Smithers because we have a very diverse population. Not everyone agrees on what ‘economic development’ should look like. The Bulkley Valley Economic Development Association (BVEDA) focused on one problem that affects our community equally and that is affordable fibre optic broadband internet. We currently lack the capacity that is often taken for granted in larger centres. It has been shown that new businesses and site selectors require this kind of infrastructure to prosper in a location.

Last year, the BVEDA engaged with CityWest Communications of Prince Rupert in an attempt to bring fibre optic broadband internet services to our community. Through our engagement CityWest, we are happy to report that they will be entering the Smithers commercial/residential market in the first or second quarter of 2015.