Rural communities such as those in the North Thompson Valley face many challenges.
However, they also have a number of unique opportunities, according to speakers at last Saturday’s economic development forum in Little Fort.
Possibly the one with the best news was Stephanie Molina, marketing manager with Tourism Wells Gray.
“I’m from New York – a very urban environment,” she said. “What we have here in the valley is diminishing rapidly in the world at large – wilderness and an authentic cultural experience. People will spend a lot of money to experience it.”
Wells Gray Park is one of the top tourist destinations in the world, she said, with 281,000 users in 2013/2014, an increase of 6.8 per cent over the year before.
Last year over 100,000 visitors stopped at the Wells Gray Infocentre in Clearwater, making it the busiest infocentre in B.C.
A study done a few years ago found that tourism brings in $21 million per year to Wells Gray Country (Area A) and District of Clearwater.
The top markets for the Thompson-Okanagan are B.C., Alberta, Washington State, and California, she said.
However, for many operators in the upper North Thompson Valley, 70-90 per cent of visitors are from overseas, especially Germany, Holland and Switzerland.
Tourism marketers in the region are now working through the North Thompson Marketing Committee in campaigns using social media and other tools to promote the area.
One shortcoming is the lack of opportunities for budget travellers, Molina said.
Young people look for hostels and other inexpensive places to stay.
Regional clusters are the key
Bill Bourgeois of New Direction Resource Management spoke on the theme of community diversification being a journey, not an event.
Bourgeois was formerly the coordinator of the province-wide Healthy Forests – Healthy Communities (HF-HC) initiative and spoke at a forum about the initiative in Clearwater in 2013.
Successful economic development often depends on developing clusters of businesses working together, he said.
The concept was first developed in Austria about 20 years ago and has proven its worth, he said.
Bourgeois would like to start with a regional cluster focussing on logging residue that otherwise would be classified as waste.
Possible economically viable products might include posts and rails, charcoal, hog fuel and pellets.
New forests ministry policy means that if a company does not use the residue it produces, the district manager can designate an alternative, he said.
The important factor would be getting a secure source of fibre, Bourgeois felt.
Diversification helps farm survive
A small scale slaughterhouse has helped make his family’s farm near Darfield a more attractive business proposition, Karl Rainer told the forum.
His parents started the farm in 1942.
“It’s about 270 acres, steep and lots of rocks,” Rainer said. “My dad was from Austria.”
They started out shipping cream and then in about 1986 began shipping milk.
The slaughterhouse began in about 1980 with a small meat shop.
His oldest son, Ben, took a meat-cutting course through what was then University College of the Cariboo and rebuilt the shop.
New regulations have come in but they have always managed to keep one step ahead of the process, he said.
They now have about three full-time employees plus another three or four part-time.
Although they did fairly well in the dairy business it required too much of a time commitment and so the farm now produces mostly beef cattle.
They quite often have foreign students, mostly European, staying and working at the farm. Interestingly, Rainer’s impression is that the equipment on farms in western Europe is more advanced than in Canada, even though the farms are much smaller.
Community Futures is here to help
Many people are unclear about the role of Thompson Country Community Futures, said general manager David Arsenault.
The federally funded agency is a lender of last resort for businesses and startups that cannot get loans from traditional sources such as banks or credit unions.
TCCF is also involved in community economic development, he said.
It has done a number of projects in the North Thompson, especially in response to the wildfires of 2003.
One regional project they are working on now is a proposed year-round market in Kamloops similar to Granville Market in Vancouver.
Advice for budding entrepreneurs
Clearwater resident Cheryl Thomas spoke about her experiences in small business since coming to the valley in 1975.
These included a new online marketing enterprise she has started up.
“You need education from others. Develop a team to teach yourself,” she said.
Municipality seeks to help businesses
There could be as many as 12 economically significant developments coming to Clearwater in the near future, according to District of Clearwater’s chief administrative officer Leslie Groulx.
“The thing with economic development is you never know what will pan out,” she said. “You might work with someone for years on a new business, only to have them decide to locate somewhere else.”
One proposal could see 40 to 50 people employed. An announcement could be made soon, Groulx said.
Another is also close to going public and could create 20 to 25 jobs.
Other initiatives include extending the town’s sewer system to Raft River Elementary School, building more affordable housing, developing a campus of care for independent and assisted living.
The key challenge is to attract young families, she felt.
Tourists seek natural history
Brian Bondar of Barriere spoke of the need for a natural history interpretive centre in that community.
He saw lots of wildlife when he was with the forest industry, he said, and tourists also want to see wildlife.
First Nations culture would be a draw as well, he felt.
“It would help diversify the economy through enhanced tourism,” he said.
Inset photo show Bill Bourgeois.
Photo below shows Brian Bondar explaining why he thinks there should be a nature interpretive centre in Clearwater while Harley Wright, chair of the Lower North Thompson Community Forest Society, holds drawings of what the centre would look like.