There’s an old saying in the newspaper business: “If it bleeds it leads.” So, true to form, I asked myself, what’s currently bleeding in Charlotte County? And in asking, I wondered if I’m also compelled to offer solutions? It’s a sticky business.
Any bleeding starts with the economy and I’d have to assess the southwestern New Brunswick economy as stagnant.
Looking at the Fundy isles, the population of Campobello has dropped over the past two decades from 1400 down to just over 1000 people today. That and the fact that the island can’t sustain a bank branch are sure signs of trouble, and declines in both tourism and fisheries explain it. Since 9/11 tourist traffic from the U.S. has slowed, and the island is on the front edge of that trend. And fisheries have been in decline for more than half a century.
Grand Manan suffers also from the same issues. However, it has a productive lobster and seaweed sector that pretty much keeps its economy in a holding pattern.
Deer Island and the coastal communities have aquaculture, which has become a financial mainstay, along with the herring and lobster fisheries, the latter doing quite well.
Up north in neighbouring York County, McAdam is only half the size it once was, and has an unemployment rate 50 percent higher than the provincial average. A bright light is the renovation of the train station, which may bring a few additional tourist dollars to town, and the upgrading of the rail line. But that’s hardly enough to re-energize a town that’s lost its purpose.
St. Stephen is the largest town in the region and its commercial hub servicing the 26,000 or so people living in the area. It supports supermarkets and government offices, but its homegrown retail sector is barely limping along, unable to compete with the Wal-Mart across the river in the States. But what makes the town an economic centre is its manufacturing sector: the Ganong and Flakeboard plants.
Ganong is more than holding its own, taking up slack left by other candy plants closing in Canada and investing $10 million in new technology and adding 40 new staff positions. Even so, it’s forced to keep a tight rein on operating costs, which translates into periodic layoffs.
Flakeboard is doing well, too. Over the past few years it’s expanded from one plant in St. Stephen to seven facilities across the continent. It’s now a major producer of composite board with an annual production capacity measured in billions of square feet. That’s great for the company but not necessarily for the town, as the local plant is no longer the only tool in the Flakeboard kit. Rumours have it that there are “voluntary layoffs” in the works for November.
And finally there’s St. Andrews. The Fairmont hotel management chain is pulling out of the Algonquin Hotel at the end of the year, which leads one to believe that the province itself will be operating the facility next year, and to say that the town’s largest attraction is well past its prime is an understatement. By popular reckoning overnight tourism dollars are down, too. The college is also in a holding pattern, struggling to fill empty seats. The town's Department of Fisheries and Oceans biological station is in a reduction pattern, not replacing retiring scientists as an ongoing part of federal belt-tightening. And the Town itself is dependent on philanthropy, which accounts for 10 percent of its annual budget, which can’t be healthy.
Why should what happens here matter to people living anywhere else? Because we are a microcosm of what’s happening internationally. More people today are reliant on jobs in consolidating industries and in centralizing governments, which means that local self-reliance is a thing of the past. So Charlotte County is now a post-development, post-frontier economy. As with most of North America, but particularly with the American Industrial Northeast, the sense of expansion has disappeared, having long ago migrated offshore to Asia and elsewhere, where development opportunities are cheaper.
What can be done? Offering solutions can be tricky, like predicting the future. It’s a question of reimagining the region in the context of not only today’s world, but tomorrow’s as well. And that reimagining process requires the collaboration of the brightest minds in the region (and from beyond the region) as well as the commitment of the local power brokers, who need to welcome newcomers and share some of their power. That collaboration requires creating a region-wide development forum in which the reimagining and openness to new ideas could take place.
I would say that in my experience openness, collaboration and accommodation is a weak point here, as is the ability to reimagine the region as a whole. The county continues operating as a collection of competing interests and communities. Real risk-taking and vision seems antithetical.
The quick fix, of course, is adding more government money to build new infrastructure, highways, museums, business parks, arenas, etc. The better fix is investing public money to create a “smart” fund that can provide seed money and a forum for new enterprise that focuses on re-localizing the economy (much as aquaculture did 30 years ago).
The last thing any of us needs at the moment is more stale, in-the-box thinking.