Sustainability planning comes to a close

Trent Ernst, Editor


Imagine Tumbler Ridge in the future. What one work would you want to use to describe your community?

Thus began the final open house for the Tumbler Ridge Community Sustainability plan, held last month at the Tumbler Ridge Conference Centre.

This is the last step in a process that has been underway for over a year now, with the Community Development Institute (CDI) working with the District to identify areas that could help Tumbler Ridge become a more diverse community.

“When the global market for coal collapsed in 2003, change came quickly and unexpectedly. As a result, the community faced a number of significant challenges around jobs, housing, retail services, health and social services, and municipal infrastructure,” says a CDI document from spring of last year. “However, the spirit of the community remained within a core group of dedicated residents and leaders who kept many community programs active.”

“The Tumbler Ridge Sustainability Plan is a proactive response, and a determined resolve not to let history repeat itself, regardless of the inevitable fluctuations in the resource economy,” said Mayor Darwin Wren at the time.

When work began, Tumbler Ridge was just coming out of its most active economic years ever. At the time, there were two mines open, Teck was actively investigating re-opening Quintette, and workers at the Quality Wind Project were desperately looking for houses, driving some rents up to over $10,000/month.

But in the year-and-a-half since the process began, that inevitable fluctuation happened again, and Tumbler Ridge is once again without an operating coal mine, which has changed both the content and the immediacy of the plan.

Marlene Morris is the Associate Director of CDI, and has been working with the District since spring of last year to create the plan. “We identified seven key areas that we wanted to explore that would have an impact on the long term sustainability of the community,” says Morris. Those seven key areas are: Housing, Arts and Culture, Health and Social Services, Education, Economy, Community Engagement and Land and Infrastructure

“In each of those areas we took them one at a time,” Morris says. “We started by interviewing a number of people, usually between about ten and 15 people in the community that were involved in that area, getting their feedback and their thoughts, and then from there we organized a workshop, and in that workshop we brought the people together to look at what we heard in the interviews, look at some of the opportunities, to look at some of the challenges, and from there develop strategies and tactics in moving forward.”

CAO Barry Elliott says that’s what’s important about this process. “Outside of the initial step of connecting with CDI to define those initial seven areas—and they brought a lot of wealth and experience, they brought that to the table—Council literally turned it back to the public. This is a very public document. It isn’t driven by council. It’s being driven by the public, and it’s being modified even as we speak. That’s the beauty of it. The new council is going to embrace this document.”

The plan, says Morris, was to work out how the community could build on its existing strengths. “The whole notion of how we could develop a comprehensive tourism that saw Tumbler Ridge as the region’s mountain playground,” she says. “If you look out from Tumbler Ridge, there are a number of communities that are growing in population, where people have the financial wherewithal to engage in recreational activities, and this is the mountains for those people. You’ve started that here. Now, you need to build on that. To build on things like Emperor’s Challenge and Grizfest, to build on things like the new Geopark, and the paleontology. They are so unique to Tumbler Ridge.”

Other suggestions, she says, have included expanding the size of the community forest so it is more economically viable, as well as using the people and the resources that are here and bringing them together “to create something new,” she says. “Make better use of the space you have. Make sure that people who are engaged in sports and arts activities have an outlet.”

The plan was presented to Council at the meeting on Monday. Elliott says while this was the work of the current Council, implementation will be something the new Council will have to work on. “We’re heading into an election,” he says. “We’ll have a brand new council in place, and they’re going to have a starting point for their long-term planning. They’re in a reasonably good position, because, in spite of the economic downturn, they have a starting point, which is quite a different place than when the last downturn occurred.”

Morris says its interesting how much has changed since the community started the process. “We started this and we were wondering how we were going to cope with all the growth that was happening. And isn’t it interesting that we are facing just the opposite challenge. But everything out there is just as relevant now as it was in the first place. Economic Development is relevant no matter where you are in the economic cycle. This process has shown us that. This is a long term exercise. It is a long term process, and it is important to remain focused. None of this will happen overnight.”

Morris says that the plan itself is an important byproduct of the process, but she hopes that the very process itself will have changed the community. “One of the most important things that has happened is not the plan itself, but that we brought people together,” she says. “They’ve been thinking together, they’ve been talking together, they’ve been strategizing together. So all of a sudden, if something changes, that group is used to working together, and they go ‘oh, there’s a new piece of information, a new challenge, a new opportunity. Good. We’re used to working together, so together we’ll take that on and move on it.’ What you build are groups of people that are doing that on an ongoing basis, and are that much better at dealing with these things.

“I really think that the District of Tumbler Ridge was visionary in deciding to take this on,” she says. “A lot of communities talk about economic diversification, talk about building community capacity, but this was a very comprehensive look at it with the intention of identifying both short and long term objectives for the community in these areas.

“Looking at it holistically, I think that while a lot of communities are in the same situation because there are a lot of resource based communities in northern British Columbia, the fact is that very few of them have actually taken the kind of comprehensive approach. And I do think that a lot of communities will be able to learn from what Tumbler Ridge has achieved here.”