Struggling cities fight back

 

by

Online only.

 

williamslake

In 2007, brazen thieves did their best to smash their way into a town’s sporting goods shop. They swung baseball bats and hammers, hurled manhole covers and even tried to drive a stolen vehicle through the front window.

The thieves were unsuccessful because local merchants were ready for them. In this town shop keepers kept their doors permanently locked, scrutinizing customers before allowing them in. Cars and trucks were routinely stolen, and homes and businesses were vulnerable to break-ins. The town was in a state of siege.

While it may sound like this took place in a developing nation, it didn’t. This was Williams Lake, British Columbia. It’s No. 177 (out of 180) on the MoneySense Best Places to Live list.

Every year MoneySense ranks 180 towns and cities across Canada with a population of more than 10,000. We look at empirical, objective criteria such as housing affordability, incomes, job prospects, crime rates and access to health care. Each community is assigned a rank in more than 20 different categories for a final figure out of a possible 105 points. The scores are close, and only two scored higher than 70, and just barely.

For the second year running, Ottawa-Gatineau took top spot, mostly due to its steady job market, low crime and steady population growth. It’s not Utopia, but it’s a clean, safe, prosperous town in which to live, work and play.

At the other end of the list are Canada’s worst places to live. They’re all rural towns with undiversified economies that are reliant on their local area’s natural resources and the vagaries of international supply and demand. Many of these locations were once boom towns when demand was high for pulp and paper or when mining was easy and cheap. But when a commodity’s price drops or when a mineral deposit becomes too expensive to mine, the whole town suffers.

In descending order, they are:

10. La Tuque, PQ

9. Port Alberni, B.C.

8. Summerside, P.E.I.

7. Norfolk, ON

6. Campbell River, B.C.

5. Quesnel, B.C.

4. Williams Lake, B.C.

3. Val-d’Or, PQ

2. Bay Roberts, NL

1. New Glasgow, NS

These towns at the bottom of the MoneySense list all share characteristics they’d rather not: high unemployment, low average household income, negative population growth rates and — for all but two — severe crime. Contrast the fortunes of these towns with a modern boom town like Fort McMurray. Now that the price of oil is currently above US$100, Fort McMurray is profiting from being the centre of the oilsands extraction industry. Its population has almost doubled in the past decade while the average income is the highest in Canada at $177,000.

In Williams Lake, the bite of the global financial crisis was deeply felt. Predominantly a forestry, mining and ranching community, the town has lost roughly one-third of its jobs since 2008, and the fallout has compounded the misery.

But the town does have its bright spots. It ranked 92nd out of 180 for average house prices ($251,167) and 96th for household income. Even better is Williams Lake’s high discretionary income (61st).

Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends. Williams Lake appears at or near the bottom of the list in heavily-weighted categories such as unemployment (154th), access to health care (140th) and population growth (145th). Results for the lower-rated (but equally important) category of crime are even worse. The town ranks 176th for violent crime, 177th for overall crime, and 178th in crime severity.

Solving any one of these issues quickly — let alone all four— will prove a daunting task to say the least.

Enter Mayor Kerry Cook, who was voted into office in November of 2008 as the world economy spiralled toward seeming oblivion. At that time Williams Lake could claim the unhappy title of Canada’s capital of crime. A Statistics Canada report put Williams Lake at No. 1 for crime severity and No.2 for violent crime.

“When we stepped into office we were in crisis,” explains Cook. “We had hit an all-time low and we needed to do things quickly.”

The small RCMP detachment of about 50 officers that oversees the jurisdiction of more than 30,000 people was out of its depth. Calls were coming in faster than they could be processed, and investigations were often left unfinished as more urgent cases arose, said RCMP Staff Sergeant Warren Brown.

Cook caught a break when Williams Lake was chosen, along with five other B.C. towns, to be part of a pilot project targeting prolific offenders. As it turned out, the majority of crimes were attributable to a small group of repeat offenders from the surrounding area.

She reached out to the RCMP, First Nations leaders and community volunteers in an effort to form a united front. She then partnered with the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development to launch the “Communities That Care” initiative, aimed at promoting positive youth development and engagement.

Prolific offenders were locked up. Volunteer patrols fanned out across the community, calling in suspicious behaviour to the police. Youth who were at risk of, or suffering from, substance abuse problems were offered assistance. Through a grant application, the RCMP was able to bring three First Nations tribes to the table in an effort to pool resources. The elders told Staff Sergeant Brown that it was “the first time that’s ever happened.” Gradually, the mood of the town turned.

“Our approach was, ‘This is not an RCMP problem. It’s not an Aboriginal problem. This is a community problem and we need to bring everybody to the table and start working together,’” she says. “And that has paid off in spades.”

She’s not exaggerating. Between 2008 and 2010, auto theft dropped an average of 71%. Break and enters were down 40% and robberies down 56%.

With momentum building on social issues, Cook set her sights on the economic situation. She recently completed an industrial revitalization strategy initiative to identify potential investment opportunities. Companies are being lured to Williams Lake with tax breaks of up to 100%, and thanks to the efforts of a local cycling advocacy group, a huge new network of mountain biking trails was recently unveiled, putting the town on the map for adventure sports. And a joint effort with Thompson Rivers University (which has a campus in Williams Lake) is underway to attract international students.

The efforts of Cook’s administration earned the town the 2010 Federation of Canadian Municipalities award for planning. There was more good news recently when the nearby copper and molybdenum mine (owned by B.C.– based Taseko Mines Limited) announced a $300 million capital investment, which is expected to create 300 to 400 construction jobs over the next 20 months and up to 140 permanent positions. According to Taseko Mines, the positions will draw almost exclusively from the town’s labour pool.

Williams Lake isn’t likely to crack the top 10 of Canada’s Best Place to Live next year, but thanks to innovative thinking it’s moving in the right direction. At the very least, there are job prospects and its merchants no longer need live in fear.

With files from Kent Spencer, the Province.com.

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