The hard-working heart of B.C. is helping make huge capital projects happen

The Cariboo, encompassing the forested plateau country at British Columbia’s heart, is a region populated by a younger, more working-age demographic than the province as a whole. More than in other regions, its residents are likely to live in rural areas and work in goods-producing industries, from cattle ranching to metal fabrication.

The exception to this rule is the region’s largest city, Prince George. Located at almost the geographic centre of the province and at the crossroads of major road and rail corridors, Prince George is known as the “Hub City” of northern B.C. That also makes it a service centre as well as the logistical staging area for some massive construction projects underway in neighbouring regions: the Site C hydroelectric dam, the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion, and the LNG Canada terminal and its associated Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline.

Outstanding Potential

The Cariboo’s capital has been buzzing of late with engineers, building contractors and all manner of suppliers for the sizable crews at work in these typically remote work sites. In 2019, for the second year in a row, the city smashed its previous record for the number and value of building permits—a total of 611 projects collectively worth $223 million. “Council is extremely pleased to see these important economic indicators for Prince George are continuing to trend upward,” Mayor Lyn Hall said in announcing the year-end numbers. “We are also very pleased that investors, businesses and developers are recognizing the outstanding potential of our city."

But Prince George, which has known its share of booms and busts, is taking it all in stride. Its economy is more diverse than it’s ever been. The University of Northern British Columbia, operating now for a quarter century, consistently ranks among the top universities of its size in Canada. The gloom in the lumber side of the forest industry has been offset somewhat by a better performance in pulp and paper. As the Chartered Professional Accountants of B.C. noted in their Regional Check-Up 2019, “A substantial increase in the demand for pulp from Asian countries, particularly China, contributed to a solid year for the Cariboo’s pulp producers. In 2018, the value of British Columbia’s pulp exports rose by $766 million, or 22.1 percent.”

And there are tantalizing prospects for Prince George’s future. Last summer, Calgary-based West Coast Olefins unveiled plans for a $5.6-billion petrochemical plant on a 300-acre former railyard. Drawing on energy carrier Enbridge’s West Coast natural gas pipeline for its feedstock, the operation would produce ethylene and plastic in two stages. West Coast Olefins president and CEO Ken James cited the low cost of Canadian gas and lower shipping costs to markets in Asia than rivals on the U.S. Gulf Coast as competitive advantages for the proposal. The company said it intends to make a final investment decision on the plant, which would support 1,000 ongoing jobs, by the end of 2020.

In the more immediate term, Enbridge is beginning a project to install three new compressors in the Prince George vicinity along its Transportation South (T-South) pipeline, which runs from just south of Chetwynd in northeast B.C. to the U.S. border. The so-called T-South reliability and expansion program is expected to create as many as 300 jobs over the next 18 to 24 months.

“Prince George experienced a construction boom due to an influx of residential and institutional/government development,” the CPAs summarized, “while Williams Lake generated a considerable amount of industrial and residential building construction.”

Thanks in large part to recent investments in production efficiency, the Gibraltar mine north of Williams Lake has maintained production despite wavering prices for copper. Fortunately, work continues bringing the nearby Bonanza Ledge gold mine into full production, which will benefit both Quesnel and Williams Lake.

Transition Strategy

Faced with a combination of cyclically low lumber prices and significant cutbacks in the timber supply due to the mountain pine beetle infestation, Quesnel has come up with a comprehensive Economic Development Transition Strategy that focuses on three themes: destination development; encouraging innovation in the forest, mining and agriculture industries; and retaining and attracting residents and businesses. A new school and a hospital expansion, combined with new investment in transportation infrastructure, are strengthening the community to capture new economic development activity. Recently a new Forestry Innovation Centre opened, along with a regional food hub and business incubator, Sprout Kitchen, all leading toward economic diversification.

The Council of Forest Industries has likewise published a report, Smart Future: A path forward for B.C.’s forest products industry, with 60 recommendations to help forest-dependent communities boost value-added manufacturing and expand markets in areas such as low-carbon green building materials, among other strategies.

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