Affordable and off the beaten path, B.C.’s southeast corner is attracting a new breed of business

Rossland is a quaint, historic mountain town that, during the winter months, makes a great backdrop for a Christmas card. Boasting legendary powder skiing and hundreds of kilometres of mountain bike trails, it’s a well-kept secret among the international fraternity of outdoor adventure seekers.

So it came as a surprise to some big-city types last December when local information technology startup Fulcrum Management Solutions attracted $20 million in funding from venture capital firms in Seattle, Toronto and Vancouver. The money will be used to expand sales of Fulcrum’s Thoughtexchange stakeholder feedback tool in North America and beyond.

Fulcrum, which had raised more than $10 million in earlier financing rounds and counts Fortune 500 companies and some 500 school districts among its clients, was founded in 2009 and has 140 employees. Although not all are based in Rossland, its story says something about the way the Kootenays’ high quality of life, combined with an affordable cost of living, is attracting young talent and giving rise to a new breed of knowledge-based company in this quiet corner of B.C.

While Fulcrum is expanding in Rossland, Burnaby-based Salesforce consulting and implementation firm Traction on Demand opened a Nelson office in 2019 that it expects to grow to 20 positions. Greg Malpass, the company’s CEO (who himself hails from Nelson), cited modest housing costs, a vibrant community and short commuting times as reasons to set up shop in the Kootenays.

Last year also saw the Nelson Innovation Centre open its doors in the historic Canadian Pacific Railway building in the city’s downtown. “Nelson Innovation Centre will help to position our region as a destination for technology entrepreneurs and workers,” says Andrea Wilkey, executive director of Community Futures Central Kootenay.

Knowledge-intensive

In Trail, the MIDAS Fab Lab, a business incubator focused on digital fabrication, has in its two years of existence trained more than 100 workers, supported the development of some 90 prototypes, created or expanded a dozen businesses and helped generate $3 million in sales.

Meanwhile, in Canal Flats in the East Kootenay, the Columbia Lake Technology Centre provides a home for value-added businesses including PodTech Innovation, a fabrication shop operated by BID Group of Prince George, local real estate manager CL Holdings and the sustainability-focused Columbia Lake Ranch on a site left vacant by a sawmill closure.

This growth in technology and knowledge-intensive jobs is welcome, because both the forest industry and the oil and gas sector in neighbouring Alberta, which has provided construction and trades-related employment for many in the region over the years, faced significant headwinds in 2019. But even companies in the resources sector have been adapting and moving away from low-value commodity exports. Kalesnikoff Lumber Co. of Castlegar, for example, has invested $35 million in a facility to manufacture products for mass timber construction, which enables builders to construct highrises out of wood fibre with a much lower carbon footprint than traditional steel construction.

The mining industry, centred on Teck Resources’ metallurgical coal operations in the Elk Valley and lead-zinc smelter in Trail, has been stable in recent years, with a small increase in employment recorded in 2018. Tourism receipts have likewise been steady in the region, with tourist entries at airports and over the U.S. border rising a healthy 6.4 percent in 2018 and room rates climbing.

“The largest employment growth was seen in health care and social assistance, professional, scientific and technical services, and other services,” the Chartered Professional Accountants of B.C. stated in their Regional Check-Up 2019. “Health care and social assistance services flourished with new provincial and federal government initiatives to improve mental health, addictions support, and senior care, expand child care spaces, and address the shortage of primary health care providers.”

Migration into the Kootenay region from elsewhere in B.C. and from other provinces fuelled a population increase of 6.1 percent over the five years from 2013 to 2018, the CPAs noted. Not surprisingly, with the emergence of more skilled jobs, more than 70 percent of the labour force aged 25 to 54 in the Kootenays now has at least some postsecondary education. This makes the region one of the better-educated in B.C. Rising levels of education correlate with higher wages, which, combined with an average house price of less than $350,000, enables Kootenay residents to enjoy an enviable real-world standard of living. No wonder investment and people are making their way here!

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