A long and winding road to Tumbler Ridge

Trent Ernst, Editor

The first thing you may notice about Tumbler Ridge’s new Economic Development officer is his accent.

John Powell comes to Tumbler Ridge from England, by way of the Okanagan.

So how does someone who, less than a decade ago was working as a coordinator for the Thames Strategy–Kew to Chelsea organization, coordinating environmental and heritage restoration projects for an area whose history dates back to that time Julius Caesar crossed the river Thames 54 years before Christ was born, wind up in Tumbler Ridge, which didn’t exist when I was born?

Well, like most things in life, it involved a girl.

Powell was born in Lyndhurst in Hampshire in the South of England, about an hour’s drive from London. He was born to a family of sheep farmers, and was born at home because there was a strike on at the local maternity hospital.

After some boring bits in the middle, he went to the University of Gloucestershire and later, the University of Westminster where he got his MA in Tourism Management.

While working in London, though, he met a Canadian girl. “Mel is from Edmonton,” says Powell. “She was in England teaching in a school in London.”

The two met, fell in love and got married in 2006.

“Mel’s plan was always to come home eventually,” says Powell. “She’d been there for eight years, and it was the right time for both of us.”

So the two packed up and moved back to Canada. “We decided to go to the Okanagan,” says Powell. “We came here without jobs and everything just fell into place.”

The couple moved to Kelowna, but moved down to Penticton when Powell got a job as Economic Director for the Regional District of Okanagan Similkimeen in Okanagan Falls.

The couple became a quartet, having two boys, Zachary and Ryan, but after nearly six years in the Okanagan, it was time for another adventure. “The opportunity arose to come work as EDO for the District of Tumbler Ridge, and I grabbed onto it with both hands. It just felt like the right move. The boys are loving it here. We are loving the outdoors, loving the trails, loving getting out on hikes and on our bikes.”

While it might seem to be backwards to the standard career path, starting in smaller towns and working up to bigger centres, Powell says it’s no mistake. “I really believe that small communities are my niche. I applied for a lot of positions. I was shortlisted for another position and was offered it the day after Tumbler Ridge, but it was a no-brainer to come here. I wanted something different to the Okanagan. I was always intrigued about living in the North. You never hear anyone say bad things about the north. People stay ten, 15 years up here, and nobody says bad things. And I can see why.”

Powell says this is the most remote community that either he or his wife has lived, and he’s loving the adventure. He’s also loving the challenge.

“I’m coming in here with the belief that, while the heritage of this community is important, we need to look at coal as the icing on the cake, not the cake itself,” he says. “We have got to move away from boom and bust economy which has been the tradition of the community. The good times are exceptional, but then the bottom falls out. I’m coming in with the perspective that we have to be looking at several components of the economy. Tourism, whether you like it or not, has to be a big part. The Geopark, the trails, the wildlife. It’s a key part. It’s an important part of the economy.”

This is not the message that many people want to hear, he says. “I know a lot of people are jaded by dinosaurs, but like it or not the geology, the Geopark, the dinosaurs are huge assets for the community. It’s something that is little known outside the local region. Telling people about it in the Okanagan, they had no idea that we had dinosaurs, but they all got excited when I told them about that. But telling them about the recreation? They were like ‘we’ve got that too.’ Every other community in BC has that. But dinosaurs are unique.

The town can’t rely just on tourism, either, says Powell. “Wider diversification is key. We’ve got the windmills, green energy, the community forest, the downtown core. We’ve got several sectors that we need to develop and diversify.”

Another opportunity he sees is for virtual workers. “These are people who bring their own work with them,” he says. “People who move here for the quality of life, but they have a career that they can do from anywhere.”

As an example, he points to some friends of his down in the Okanagan. “They are music promoters. They bring artists into communities, and they are some of the best in the world. They should be in Nashville, but they’re based in Penticton. They chose to live there. They could just as easily do what they do here, if they chose.”

Powell says as part of developing the strategy for diversification, he is applying for grants to prepare an investment readiness plan. “This will allow us to put all the building blocks in place so we can be ready for these businesses. There is still work to be done. We need to do a better job communicating our strengths.”

Powell has only been in town for a couple months, so he doesn’t have all the answers yet. “Right now, what I’m doing is preparing. It’s laying the ground work. Part of being invested ready, is knowing what we’re pursuing, and not straying from the message.”

One of the things he brings, he says, is an outsider’s perspective. “I got an impression of the community before I moved here and a different impression as I moved here, and a different impression now that I’m here. There’s a lot of fabulous things about the community, but a lot that needs to be worked on. I want to communicate that we need to look at it from an outsider’s perspective, not the perspective of a local who is integrated in the community.”

People forget that not everyone wants to live 100 km from the nearest big town. We need to be clear about the kind of people we want to attract and pursue them. We need to pursue a resident attraction strategy and know who these people are so we can market accordingly.”

While right now a lot of his work is planning, Powell is not a fan of planning for planning sake, he says. “There have been a lot of plans in the past,” he says. “I’ve got a whole stack of plans. What I want to do is compile those into one plan that is achievable. Extract the information from all of these to something that is implementable. Planning for the sake of planning is not the way to go.”

Powell says his job is not to make jobs. “I’m here to help create an environment where job creation is possible. Make this an attractive place for businesses. I would like to see results within a year. I think that we need to have measures in place to support the businesses in around about a year. That doesn’t mean that everything will be rosy in a year, but that we’ll be moving forward, behind the scenes.”

Powell says one of the biggest hurdles he has to face is the attitude of many in the community. “I think there’s a lot of people who are out of work, or their business is struggling. They’re thinking ‘what’s the point?’ They are feeling unmotivated and demoralized. That’s a sentiment which I am trying to overcome with a new Downtown Business Association to try and challenge the status quo, to address the concerns of the businesses and help get through this downturn.”

Another large part of his job, says Powell is to work with businesses. “My job is to listen, and I do what I can to respond and find solutions to people’s concerns. I can work with the province, with the region, with the municipality to work for the benefit of the community.”

Something that can be forgotten in such a remote community is the pressures of the World Economy. “The decline of resource sector is a threat to the town,” he says. “But that opens up doors to renewable sources. There might be a decline in natural resources, but if we’re moving away from gas and coal, it’s an opportunity, too.

“We need to be focused in what we want to do so we’re not spinning our wheels. We need everyone on side. I want the community to have some optimism, if one person can do that. I want to work with community to support them, but I don’t have a magic wand. Things can’t change overnight, so we need to do what we can for the long term.”