By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Neepawa Banner & Press
NEEPAWA, Man. — Depopulation is a serious issue facing many rural communities. Over the last hundred years, Canadians have become increasingly urban and this shift has created challenges in many smaller towns and cities. They’ve seen their youth leave for education or career opportunities and not come back.
As local economies have rebounded following the great recession, many communities find themselves in a tough spot — they have jobs, but not workers and if companies can’t find the needed workers, they’re likely to move where they can. A look at the help wanted pages show that there are lots of jobs available locally, but there aren’t always workers available to fill them.
The 2016 Census found that Neepawa was growing, one of the fastest growing rural communities in the province, in fact, but it was the anomaly. For most rural areas, the reality is a stagnant or declining population— A trend that is likely to continue if attracting new residents doesn’t become a priority. There’s a lot of inertia to overcome, the problem has been close to a century in the making.
In the U.S., especially the Midwest, lots of jobs and not enough workers have prompted many communities to get proactive about attracting new residents. With a focus on attracting people early into their careers, many communities are offering some combination of student loan re-payments, free or cheap building lots or cash bonuses for those who move the community for a job. The cash is put up by local chambers of commerce, community foundations or local governments.
Closer to home, the RM of Pipestone is offering serviced residential lots for $10 each. Once construction is complete, the homeowner can receive a grant valued at three percent of the construction cost, up to $6,000. They also offer small business loans up to $10,000, which can be used for new businesses or business expansions.
Neepawa and its surrounding municipalities have been lucky, a rapidly expanding major employer has meant that the town is facing a housing shortage, not a shortage of residents. But not all communities within the Banner’s coverage area have been so lucky. Many villages are hollowing out and municipalities are left with an ever ageing population, as young people leave and build their lives elsewhere. While the Town of Neepawa and Municipality of Riverdale have about 61 per cent of their population between the ages of 15 and 64, other communities have a much lower percentage of working-age residents. For example, 55 percent of residents in the Municipality of McCreary and 50 percent of residents in the municipality of WestLake Gladstone are of working age.
Wherever they are, young people want to leave and explore the world. We as communities want them to do this. We want them to gain the education or different work experiences. We want them to see what others are doing and the possibilities beyond what they’ve seen growing up. But the key is that we want them to come back. That’s why these programs are so important. We want them to bring their education back to the community. We want them to fill vacant jobs or open businesses and create new jobs. For many, an incentive can help tip the scales in deciding where they set down roots.
Recruiting younger residents to keep businesses going and communities viable is neither a fast, nor an easy task. It’s something that takes time to develop momentum. Communities that see their streets starting to lose their vibrancy need to start looking at ways of changing the tide. By the time the community is vacant, it’s too late.