The news that Canfor would be permanently ceasing operations of their pulp line at the Prince George Pulp and Paper facility shook the community, and the province

The decline of the forestry sector in recent years was not exactly a surprise to both workers and industry watchers. However, the fact that it occurred in Prince George, B.C.’s northern capital, after mostly being relegated to smaller communities, is a more visceral reminder that an integral industry in B.C. is going through painful changes.

Premier David Eby offered his sympathies to the 300 affected workers of the closure at a press conference in Surrey, promising that the provincial government would be deploying a crisis response team to Prince George in order to connect workers with resources such as job training and transitions to retirement.

Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond shared that same sense of urgency, in both supports for the workers and specifically making sure that younger workers not able to retire can get job training for other fields of work.

“Frankly, that is the government’s job, to provide those kinds of supports and resources to impacted workers and their families,” Bond says. She adds that the government should expedite an inventory process of the jobs lost and to connect said employees.

The news of the Canfor pulp line closure also came shortly before the 20th annual B.C. Natural Resources Forum in Prince George, the first in-person forum in three years following the easing of pandemic restrictions. As such, the future of forestry became the focal point of the event as all levels of government and natural resource industry leaders descended on the city.

Both the current provincial government and the B.C. Liberals strongly emphasized that forestry is not a sunset industry, but that it must adapt to more sustainable practices that may limit its scale.

On his first official visit to Prince George as premier, Eby announced a $90-million manufacturing jobs fund over three years as an incentive for value-added forestry products.

“Whether it’s a forestry company seeking new equipment to make mass timber products, or setting up a new bio plastics or biofuel facility in a rural community, we want to jump-start these projects by diversifying and making resilient rural and remote economies,” Eby said.

While forestry makes up a much smaller percentage of the local economy than it used to, it will likely always remain a pillar of the city’s economic engine, as it does for the entire province.

According to the latest numbers from the 2021 Census, 3,490 people in the city worked in the manufacturing industry, out of a total workforce of 43,805. This includes wood product and paper manufacturing. A total of 1,385 workers manufactured wood products, while 1,040 worked in paper manufacturing.

Assuming no other changes since 2021, the Canfor pulp line closure means that by the end of March — more than a quarter, roughly 29 per cent, of the paper manufacturing sector in Prince George will be removed from the workforce. The closure also means the removal of eight per cent of the total manufacturing workforce.

While the closure is nothing to sneeze at in terms of the impact on the local economy and the forestry sector, especially with the affects that the layoffs will have on indirect jobs, the city will survive to see tomorrow without too much turmoil.

That’s because Prince George has made several major changes in recent years to diversify its economy, and continues to do so.

The two watershed moments for that in the past three decades have of course been the opening of the University of Northern British Columbia, and the expansion of the University Hospital of Northern B.C. alongside the introduction of the Northern Medical Program.

Prince George has in recent years become a hub in almost every sense. While it used to mean almost exclusively the forestry and natural resource sector, the city has now grown into an educational, health care, governance, and retail hub, among others.

“Certainly the university opening up changed a lot of the framework of employment here in Prince George,” said Todd Corrigall, former CEO of the Prince George Chamber of Commerce.

Corrigall points out that the city is also home to a sizeable amount of federal and provincial government employees, in addition to the City of Prince George itself.

Of course with any growing city, regardless of the industry that its serving, there is always bound to an immediate secondary effect — and that is a growing retail sector. The city has seen some retail and wholesale giants enter in recent years including Walmart and Costco, among others.

Corrigall says that some of these retail giants have noticed the value of having a location in Prince George, not only to serve a city and region of around 80,000 people, but to also attract business from the neighbouring cities of Northern B.C.

“I always, half jokingly say, one of our biggest attractions is Costco,” he says. “You can go past Costco at any time of any day and that parking lot is packed. In the summer, there’s RVs galore that are loading up thousands and thousands of dollars worth of goods from Costco.”

He adds that even outlets such as Winners and HomeSense have realized that Prince George has a market share of around 200,000 people through serving neighbouring communities such as Quesnel, Vanderhoof, and Valemount but also further cities such as Smithers, Terrace, and even Kitimat.

Retail holds the second largest share of the workforce in Prince George at over 5,000, but the single largest industry in the census region is health care and social assistance at over 6,600. Corrigall explains that Northern Health is one of the single largest employers in the region due to the extent of its jurisdiction.

However, retail and public sector employees, including a sizeable education industry, are more a result of private sector success and cannot be the sole drivers of economic growth. Corrigall points to how B.C. did decently well employment wise during the pandemic, but says it’s largely a result of a growing public sector and calls it a “false economy.”

So where can the city look to for growth?

Certainly the university opening up changed a lot of the framework of employment here in Prince George.

Todd Corrigall, former CEO of the Prince George Chamber of Commerce

Corrigall argues that the province should still focus on making policy changes to help transition the forestry industry to a more sustainable model — something that has also been repeated by both the government and the opposition.

However, he also points to large natural resource projects such as LNG and the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which have seen workers stay in Prince George in the process and help keep the economy afloat during the pandemic

The city also missed the opportunity to market itself to those leaving major metropolitan centres as an affordable place to work from home, Corrigall says, which would in turn support the retail and public sectors.

To some extent Prince George has attempted to market itself as an outdoors haven, where you can hit the lake or the trail after work. The city is also going through the process of creating a new visual identity and tagline in order to better market itself.

Bond agrees, saying that the region has both room to grow in its tourism sector, and in attracting the tech sector that is increasingly seeing more remote work.

When it comes to what the city itself is doing to help attract new private ventures, there is no shortage of options, according to its economic development officer, Deklan Corstanje.

Even recently, the city has been showing off its progress in welcoming investments into carbon reduction, renewable energy, and wood construction in order to store carbon. This was a focal point during the Natural Resources Forum, as the city held tours of such facilities.

Corstanje points to innovations such as hydrogen and low carbon fuels, wood construction products, and the expanding Port of Prince Rupert as huge boons for warehousing, manufacturing and transportation sectors.

“We have a unique opportunity here with our inland ports and transportation networks and we’re seeing those grow and we want to sort of catalyze that growth and that movement,” he says.

Construction is a large point for Corstanje as well, given both the growing city and region in addition to the already desperate need for more housing across the province. As well, he details that the city can leverage both UNBC and the College of New Caledonia to push growth in the professional service sector such as environmental science and engineering.

Even while low-carbon initiatives, transportation, construction and warehousing become a more dominant force in the economy, Corstanje adds that the city still has wealth to draw from natural resources, including forestry and mining.

Politicians and officials of all stripes seem to agree on one thing in that B.C.’s north is still rich with natural wealth and a driver for the entire province. The question of economic diversity may more or less boil down to a healthy mix of natural resources and their adjacent industries.

“We are a resource province, that’s how our wealth is derived,” Corrigall says. “So what can we do to find and enhance those opportunities, and then what do we do to retain that talent here?”

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