Year in Review: City shows resilience in downturn

A litany of curtailments and shutdowns dominated the headlines as the Interior's forest sector suffered the consequences of the pine beetle epidemic, the softwood tariff and low demand for Canadian lumber.

The situation was quickly turned into a political football as the New Democrats accused the Liberals of failing to plan for the inevitable and, in turn, the Liberals accusing the NDP of being slow to act.

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Heightening the acrimony, the NDP quietly delayed $25 million worth of projects from the Rural Dividend Fund, a keystone of the Liberals' economic support program for the province's small communities, and put it towards a $69-million support package for displaced sawmill workers.

The step did not go over well with the Opposition but drew support from the United Steelworkers Local 1-2017 president Brian O'Rourke who matched the volume on behalf of his members, many of whom are aging and more than ready to take a buyout being offered under the program.

Small communities have been hit hard as their major employers invoked lengthy curtailments or outright shutdowns. In an effort to bring the town's plight into the spotlight, a rally in Mackenzie during the summer drew about 1,000 people and speakers from across B.C.'s political spectrum. Fort St. James, meanwhile, was put in a holding pattern as the town awaits construction of a new sawmill after Hampton Affiliates took over tenure previously held by Conifex. And Canfor's supermills in Vanderhoof and Houston were reduced to four days a week while West Fraser operations in Quesnel took similar hits.

The list goes on, but when it comes to Prince George, those chickens have barely come home to roost. Although rising, the city's unemployment rate still remains below the historic average of seven per cent - testimony to the resilience of a much more diversified local economy. And the value of construction, as measured through the building permit process, reached a new record with two months left to go in the year.

From a sawmill and pulpmill town, Prince George has grown into more of a service centre for the region, making it better equipped to weather through the busts that follow the booms.

Of course, it helps that with the exception of one local sawmill, Canfor's Isle Pierre, operations in and around Prince George have generally been chugging along albeit with a few unpaid vacations along the way.

All that said, there is no doubt the sector is going through a transition. Perhaps the biggest predictor of things to come came in the form of a report from the Council of Forest Industries. One of its overarching themes is that the products the B.C. forestry sector churns out need to move up the value chain.

The report came out in September and about the same time local value-added lumber producer John Brink committed $1 million over 10 years to the trades and technology program at College of New Caledonia.

During a speech at an event to announced the gift, Brink said there is still a future in forestry and noted his company is in the process of expanding operations in Prince George, Vanderhoof and Houston.

"What we are doing is saying we understand the challenges that we have today but we believe that the future looks bright going forward," Brink said.

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