Rural Renaissance: B.C.’s Small-Town Economy

How B.C.'s regional economies can capitalize on growing global demands. Changes in the global economy, and how we approach that economy, mean that rural and small-town B.C. is poised for community and economic renewal.?

B.C.: Think small-town economy for big-picture wins.

How B.C.’s regional economies can capitalize on growing global demands.

Changes in the global economy, and how we approach that economy, mean that rural and small-town B.C. is poised for community and economic renewal.

Before we can truly mobilize that renewal, however, we have to understand two fundamentals about B.C.’s economy. The first is that rural and small-town places make money; they generate the bulk of B.C.’s export wealth, which is key to the province’s past, present and future success. The second is that B.C.’s metropolitan and non-metropolitan regions function within a single integrated economy, where the success of one supports and reinforces the success of the other. 

Creating vibrant rural and small-town communities in the new economy depends on approaching development in three integrated ways. The first centres on the economic shift from comparative to competitive advantage. Whether in resource commodities or in other sectors, increased production from low-cost regions means that we need to focus on investments and policies that help us compete locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. We can no longer simply rely on the bounty of our natural resources.

The second way we should approach rural development involves recognizing that in a fast-paced and changing global economy, our rural and small-town places must be similarly adaptable. We need to invest more in our community services, infrastructure and human and community capacity. Only then will communities be able to respond quickly to economic challenges and opportunities.

Finally, effective rural development demands a change in focus to “place-based” economies. In a global world, where business and industry can locate anywhere and still stay connected, the question is, Why would they invest in your place? The answer lies in the unique mix of local and regional assets and aspirations your place offers. 

Rural and small-town B.C. have the types of assets now so in demand by workers and industry. Many of these assets, such as a sense of community, a high quality of life, affordable housing and a safe place to raise a family or to grow old, have long defined our rural and small-town places. Place-based development will also benefit from our well-educated workforce, our younger demographic relative to other OECD countries, the presence of support services and industries, and affordable commercial and industrial lands. 

Becoming competitive will not happen on its own. Successful renewal demands active support of place-based development. Doing things matters, and not doing things has consequences in the new economy. This includes enhancing connectivity (transportation and communication), ensuring a reasonable level of high-quality services, renewing quality-of-life facilities and activities, and enhancing opportunities for collaborative regional governance. These cannot be regarded as expenses; rather, they must be seen for what they are: investments that will pay dividends over the long term. Such investments, however, must be done strategically and wisely so that top-down action supports and reinforces the bottom-up place-based pursuit of potential opportunities and change.

Place-based development creates new opportunities for reimagining and rebundling our assets to better fit local and regional community and economic development aspirations. These include opportunities to develop within the existing resource commodity sectors as well as adding new economic sectors. A place-based rebundling of assets to fit with opportunities and aspirations, together with top-down supportive public policy, can help rural and small-town communities to be flexible and adaptive in a changing global economy.

The success of rural and small-town B.C. was, is and will be important for the success of metropolitan economies and the province as a whole.

Greg Halseth is a professor at the University of Northern B.C., and author of The Next Rural Economies.