By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman
NEEPAWA, Man. — As rural communities look towards their futures, it’s clear that for many towns, the status quo hasn’t worked to keep communities vibrant and relevant to their citizens’ needs. No town is an island and every community will be impacted by factors beyond its control. For any community looking to ensure its economic viability, diversification is the key.
Whether we are talking about agriculture, manufacturing, retail or resources, all sectors are subject to business cycles, good years and bad years. In order to grow and prosper long-term, communities should be reliant on more than one cycle.
For rural communities, this is probably more important than it was in the past. Twenty years ago, most farmers were diversified, they had some livestock and grew some grains. These days, most are running specialized operations– the investments in machinery, grain storage, barns, corrals, trucks, livestock and land has necessitated this specialization. This means that at the farm level, there is less diversification, which makes it all the more important for local economies to be diversified.
You don’t have to look far to see towns decimated by economic cycles. This is why we need to make strengthening our local economies a priority during a time of relative prosperity.
There are two recently announced provincial programs that might help rural Manitoba communities expand their economies, if they have the vision.
On Nov. 20, the province announced Partner 4 Growth, a $400,000 program that provides funding to pursue rural economic development opportunities. The program is in its third year and aims to fund projects based on regional strategic advantages. In the past, it has funded training opportunities for First Nations, a feasibility study to bring broadband internet to a town, the development of a regional tourism strategy and the co-ordination of a regional survey to determine economic opportunities. The grants fall into two categories: up to $10,000 to strengthen or diversify development projects or undertake feasibility studies and up to $25,000 to complete a project. The province will provide half of the funding and projects must be regionally focused and involve more than one local government.
The other project, announced Nov. 23, is a Manitoba tourism summit, to be held in Winnipeg this January. Province-wide, tourism generates $1.5 billion in revenue, $250 million in tax revenue and supports 24,500 jobs. The province also announced a sustainable tourism funding model, in which four per cent of the province’s tourism tax revenue would fund increased marketing of Manitoba as a tourism destination.
Hopefully, this is the start of something. Right now, there’s a lot of positive buzz about Manitoba and this month, National Geographic Traveler named Winnipeg as one of the top 20 trips of 2016. There’s lots of momentum that smaller communities can build on. After all, every community has a unique local history and if groups work together, they might be able to create truly unique attractions.
Most people recognize the perils of being overly reliant on one industry. The problem is that diversification takes work. By definition, it requires moving beyond a comfort zone, beyond what a community knows. It’s easy to keep serving existing customers and existing industries. Pursuing new opportunities requires looking outwards to see what needs aren’t being met. There will likely be missteps and the returns will take time to see, but we need to get serious about our future. The best time to start is now.