Thursday, August 25, 2005

Is tourism the solution to small-town Canada's woes?

I'm not an expert on economic development, but you don't have to be one to realize that urbanization is slowly killing off Canada's small-town communities. Youth are moving to cities, and new immigrants to Canada also choose to live in larger cities when they can. Increasingly, Canada's small towns are looking like retirement communities.

On the political front, there are certainly voices advocating a stronger role for city governments, which is a good thing, given their rising importance. But it seems to me that some attention needs to be paid to the small towns as well - and not necessarily by the same government department. At what point does a town cease to be viable? Is this a reversable trend?

These ponderings are prompted by two events in my life. The first was a vacation last week at a friend's cottage in the Muskokas. When we were picking up groceries in Huntsville (a town whose development I've followed since the 1980s, when my grandparents used to have a cottage on Lake of Bays), I was struck by two phenomena. The first is how the residents of the town itself are quite old, and there is a striking prevalence of retirement homes. (My mother lives there, so this is not just a random observation, but confirmed by a local informant.) The second is how the town has reinvented itself as a hub for the cottagers. A striking number of businesses exist almost exclusively for the summer cottagers of Muskoka. We noticed this most at the Robinson's Independent Grocery, which is now a Loblaws' megastore-sized complex on the outskirts of the town in a new development. The only people shopping there were camp counsellors and cottagers - and the product selection (which was awesome) is tailored to them. The only locals seemed to be the cashiers. Apparently, the locals all shop at the Price Chopper.

I recognize that the Muskokas are likely the exception, as the playground for Ontario's (and the US's) rich (and those lucky enough to have family cottages that predate the price explosion), but it got me thinking about whether Huntsville's survival strategy - essentially as a tourism hub - is the wave of the future for small communities. Other mid-northern Ontario towns seem to have the same approach, just scaled down somewhat.

The second factor driving this ramble is my upcoming move to Mount Allison University, in Sackville, New Brunswick. I'm not the first person to comment on the economic situation in the Maritimes, I recognize. What struck me most, however, was how the region was building up infrastructure to facilitate tourism. The highways in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are excellent, and they have a 110 km/h speed limit! This could be the product of a make-work project using federal transfer payments (as some cynical friends of mine claimed), or it could be a cunning plan to make the region more desirable for tourists. Nova Scotia has cleverly couched all of its provincial highways in terms of scenic routes (as had PEI, when I was last there). To me, this seems to be the nuts-and-bolts side of developing Maritime tourism. The cultural side is the "Quest for the Folk" invention/commodification of folk traditions that historians Ian McKay and Alan Gordon have been studying recently.

While economic development is needed in both of these cases, I worry about the possible creation of a two-tier Canada. The upper tier would be the urban Canadians with disposable incomes, the lower tier the rural/small-town Canadians who work service jobs in their own communities so that the urbanites can play and vacation there. I'm not certain what the alternative is, and would welcome some ideas.

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3 Comments:

At 9:21 am, Blogger Robert McClelland said...

Apparently, the locals all shop at the Price Chopper.

Hey, I shop at A&P. But you are right in that most of Huntsville's economy is geared toward servicing the tourists. One of the major reasons for that is the industrial work is slowly disappearing from the region. Several plants have shut down in just the 4 years since I've been living here, more are on the way out and very few of the remaining ones have done any substantial hiring. Unless small communities can find a reason for big business to set up operations in their region, this trend is likely to continue.

 
At 9:34 am, Blogger Scoop said...

Well said, Matthew, especially your final paragraph.
We struggle with the same thing in Collingwood, where there seems to be an increasing divide between those of us who live here and those who move to the area to retire, or who own second homes. The homes being built in Collingwood are priced beyond what the average salary can afford to carry - mortgage-wise - and shopping opportunities are scant for those on a limited budget (though we are getting a Wal-Mart, probably in time for Christmas). There are still some industrial jobs (and we recently got an ethanol plant), but not a year goes by when its suggested one industry or another is about to close the doors because of labour strife or global competition (the latter suggestion used to keep the reins on the former).
The town did go through a 'visioning' exercise several years ago to try and deal with some of the issues that were fueled by the growth: housing, transportation, servicing, etc. At this point, some has been done, and our council recently decided to try and continue the work through a 'sustainability' committee.

 
At 10:43 am, Anonymous Halden said...

I grew up in North Bay Ontario and it s falling victim to the small town syndrom you speak of. Almost my entire graduating class has moved to Ottawa, Montreal and (god forbid) Tarawna. The City's solution has been a very successful festival during the august long weekend and a series of Carousels (don't ask me I think it's silly too.)

I see the lack of any truly viable CAREERS as a major issue for small towns to deal with. Sure the cost of housing is much cheaper in North Bay but my salary will be much smaller as well.

 

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