Economic development, as well as diversification and innovation, are buzz words we hear at almost all gatherings and/or presentations. The question remains how to diversify, and while opinions are many, realistic solutions are only a few. Lately another question arises: How much economic development do we really need or want and at what speed? The answer for this is complex, because the world around us is changing, whether we like it or not, and if we in B.C. want to remain competitive and maintain reasonably high levels of employment and a decent standard of living, we constantly have to find new ways of generating wealth and good employment opportunities that allow sustainability for years to come. For this to happen, we certainly can wait for investments that may or may not occur in our city or region, something that can be influenced by us only on a limited scale. Friends recently said to me, "We are waiting for one or two pipelines and that would change a lot." Really? We know, it would relate to LNG or other fossil fuel products. Excluding these options happening in the very near future, the question remains: What else can add value to our society, meaning living condition, health and education, etc. above what is already there?
Since staying with the status quo is never an option, change has to be embraced and options for it researched. The next question is: Which new ideas and actions can bring us forward? What about the resurrection of old ideas that have been shelved? I am referring, for instance, to an extension of the railway line from
Fort St. James via Deas Lake and Cassiar to Alaska. This project has been on the drawing board of our provincial governments for years. A rail line would not just open up the north-west corridor to all sorts of resources, including timber which we are short of in the Omineca region due to the pine beetle devastation, but would generate future employment opportunities as well. Yes, the Site C dam will probably be built and a good portion of the generated energy could possibly be used for the electrification of the rail line. Just imagine.
To paraphrase Albert Einstein, knowledge is limited but imagination is not. We could have an environmentally friendly "highway" (rail line) to Alaska. I am confident that our provincial government is studying the viability of these approaches which would allow potential economic growth and added diversification for generations to come. Sure, it would require all stakeholders being at the table: the government of Alaska, the Yukon government, our provincial government, our federal government, First Nations, industry and others who could either contribute or benefit from this project. The Alaska Rail Corporation has recently studied the return of investment and annual revenue of such a line, also considering the impact of tourism. The Economic Impact Report of 2005 combined for Canada and Alaska reveals that the additional economic output would be staggering and lead to 25,000 jobs over 50 years. A web site listing several reports cooperatively published by the governments of Alaska and the Yukon can be obtained at economics.gov.yk.ca/rail.htm.
My comments here would not be complete if I would not mention the tremendous opportunities before us due to betterment of a society through education and accessibility to it, allowing everyone to utilize their individual strength and potential for the benefit of all. Our schools and post-secondary education institutions are great social ambassadors, also uniquely positioned to provide education that is required now and in the future. I am confident that our governments try to improve and add to it where possible. Quoting our Premier: "The north of B.C. is the heartbeat of B.C."
I remain very hopeful that education in the north can be fine-tuned and currently missing programs be added to allow for growth and implementation of new ideas, so Prince George and the region can become an innovation factory in the north. One of the results of the Prince George city council's education committee facilitation event has been that Prince George (and region) can be and should be a destination for education. More students, more programming and retention of students will benefit all of us in central and northern B.C. Not easy to achieve, I know, but it is the best way to create jobs and future employment from within, building capacity to create and develop what is needed without relying on investors alone.
-- Albert Koehler is an engineer, businessman, Prince George city councillor and director of the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George