If the mountain pine beetle was the Prince George newsmaker of the decade, what (or who) will be the newsmaker over the next 10 years?
Here's my picks on what the newsmakers of the next decade will be in Prince George. They are trends, as opposed to individuals or events, but I'm confident those trends will shape the decade to come.
The single most important newsmaker of the 10 years to come will be grey hair and wrinkly skin. The aging population will have a massive impact on Prince George over the next 10 years. As the baby boomers move into their retirement years, employers will be scrambling to replace not just the knowledge of their veteran workers but just the hands and minds needed to do the job. The true cost of the various bust cycles seen in Prince George over the last 20 years will finally be paid and it won't be cheap. Laying off younger, less experienced staff and sending them fleeing for work and greener pastures elsewhere means there isn't a deep pool of young workers ready to fill the void.
Thirty years ago, the most populated demographic in Prince George was 25 to 29 year olds. Today, it is 40 to 44 year olds. When I started here at the Citizen in late 1999, there was a well-attended Christmas party for the children of staff each year. Not anymore. It was cancelled years ago due to poor attendance. There is only one person off on maternity leave at the Citizen right now. You can count on one hand the number of full-time employees under 35. Within the next five years, more than 20 per cent of our current staff could be retired. Retirement tributes will also be a regular event in the years ahead at major public and private employers, like the college, the university, the school district, the hospital and the mills.
Although the wealthier retirees will depart for the Okanagan or where their kids and grandkids are living and working, many will stay, thanks to the new cancer centre and the steady stream of doctors coming out of the Northern Medical Program. The more affluent will spend the coldest months south but they will return to the area they know and can afford for the rest of the year. They will use the pools, the parks, the library, the art gallery and other public places and will demand they are safe, clean and well-kept. They will want elected officials who spend tax dollars on the basics and on the obvious.
That leads to infrastructure, my second newsmaker of the 2010s. Prince George is at a difficult stage in its evolution right now, as the city continues its transformation into a bustling regional hub. Residents are demanding new services and amenities while the current infrastructure continues to age. Besides the RCMP detachment, the downtown library, the Four Seasons pool, Studio 2880, the Playhouse and the college are aging public facilities in need of renovation or replacement. And the roads, already a source of much malcontent, will only get worse without a significant increase in tax dollars to maintain them. Political leaders will be torn between finding funds to upkeep existing infrastructure and opening the coffers (and boosting taxes) to pay for new facilities, like a police detachment or a performing arts centre.
When 2020 arrives, we'll be able to see clearly whether the investment in the extended airport runway was opportunistic genius or the folly of dreamers.
The third newsmaker of the coming decade will be increasing conflict between the urban wants and needs of Prince George and the rural demands of Northern B.C. communities. Expect the battle to heat up over everything from government spending to closing poorly-attended out-of-town schools and busing the kids into the city.
If the pine beetle was last decade's potential disaster that came true for the region, climate change could be the one for the 2010s. It could still be the newsmaker we're talking about 10 years from now but not for its danger, rather for its benefits to Northern B.C. While the forecast for much of the rest of the world is hotter and drier, this area could simply see milder winters and longer, soggier summers. Climate change is a candidate but maybe it's just too big and too soon to get a real grasp of its impact.
Finally, there could be a case made for the pine beetle as the newsmaker of the coming decade, too. It is still early days for the fallout from the beetle's affect on the regional economy. While the bugs will be long gone, we will likely still be talking about the mess they left behind 10 years from now.
Neil Godbout is The Citizen's news editor.