When the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) came to the end of their week-long conference the Premier, as usual, made a concluding speech.
The substantiveness of the speech varies year to year but this time around Christy Clark made a promise to smaller communities that they would share in $75 million to diversify their economies.
Clark emphasized the outsized contribution of small resource communities to the provincial economy, and said the extra help is made possible by the B.C. government’s spending control that has left three straight budget surpluses.
A $75 million “rural dividend” will be available over three years to communities of fewer than 25,000 people that are outside urban areas. The fund is to diversify local economies, but details won’t be released until March 2016.
Kitimat Mayor Phil Germuth, who together with fellow councillors met with the Premier and her ministers during the course of UBCM, said her speech to the delegates was the first time he was aware of the funding plan. Time will show how Kitimat, where the population currently hovers around 9,000, will benefit from the rural dividend.
Even so, Germuth said his council was given a notably large amount of time to spend in a meeting with the Premier as councillors spoke of programs in our community, and its a meeting he felt went very well.
One area of improvement for Kitimat, which he found speaking to a project proponent early in the week, was that there are still challenges in making Kitimat an attractive place to move for work.
“It seems once they get here they see how beautiful it is and then they don’t mind it,” said Germuth. “We just maybe need to do a better job of advertising Kitimat out there.”
Infrastructure issues were a priority for Kitimat at the conference and Germuth says the community is still waiting for the West Side Corridor Study, due in approximately a month, that will take a solid look at transportation issues through Kitimat.
Germuth said he’s hoping the report will ultimately show there’s a pressing need for not just a repair of Haisla Bridge but a replacement for one as well.
A replacement would certainly need multiple levels of support, with a price tag that could be in the range of $35 million, he said, but the time is now.
“[The province] wants to wait until an FID [Final Investment Decision] maybe, however to be honest right now would be the time, when you have RTA ramping down big time and before you have an LNG FID then all of a sudden things are crazy busy again.”
Mayor Germuth does, however, believe the province does believe in principle that a new bridge may be what’s best for Kitimat.
“We’re pretty sure [the government] sees it too,” he said.
Meanwhile Germuth was also working with members of the Resource Benefits Alliance, the coalition of local regional governments seeking to direct future revenues from major industries back to the communities.
The Alliance had in the past been concerned over a lack of government willingness to do real negotiations, but Germuth said depending on who you asked within the Alliance, meetings at the UBCM were either hopeful or discouraging.
“To be honest I’m not 100 per cent sure where it’s going,” said Germuth about when real negotiations would start, but he says others in the group said they felt better about the meetings than he did.
The group did lobby the BC LNG Alliance for support in a meeting that did go well though.
“They seemed to received it fairly well,” he said. “They fully understand that the whole point of this Resource Benefits Alliance is not to tax them one extra penny, it’s just to take a piece that goes to government and be able to have the regional district’s divide it up among the communities.”
While the LNG Alliance wouldn’t be a decision maker on this subject, Germuth said it was important to have them as an ally in their push, for the province to ultimately see it as a plan that could have endorsement from not only the local governments but from industry too.
At UBCM, Premier Clark also announced a $90 million extension to the infrastructure fund for small communities, which started last year and is funded 50-50 by the federal and provincial governments. It’s available to communities under 100,000 people, covering up to two thirds of eligible projects, with applications accepted starting Oct. 30.
– Files from Tom Fletcher