Miles Bruns, Regional Manager for the BC Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation, Thompson – Okangan Region addressed members of the Similkameen Valley Planning Society on February 13.
Bruns spoke to society members about business issues and economic development in small towns, as the group seeks to find ways to improve business in the region.
Bruns spoke of the generic nature of the problems seen in the Similkameen, noting that such impediments to business as absentee business owners, business retirees without succession plans and empty stores were thematic problems in all small towns.
“These things happen everywhere,” bruns said, “it’s just more noticeable in a small town.”
Society members pointed out recent examples of regionalization, with such things as job search agencies and centralization of government ministries. Bruns agreed that such policies had big impacts on small communities.
“The impact of some of these decisions could literally wipe some (small communities) off the map,” he said.
“Elected officials have the opportunity to speak to higher levels of government, to answer the question, ‘What’s the value of our community?’ More and more decisions are being made in district offices or Victoria.”
Bruns told the group to ask the question, What do you want your community to look like in 10 or 20 years? What’s keeping you from getting there?
He described the problems of absentee business property owners, citing the example of a speculator who buys commercial property only to put a “For Sale”
sign up and having the empty storefront sit for years and years.
“You need to attract the right people to the community, then you can turn it around,” he said. It was suggested several times that government needed to help small or secondary business in B.C. in order to fill the void between commercial property’s “investment attraction” and attention to actually running a small business in small communities.
It was generally agreed that there was value to be had in small rural community business, and the government by and large ignores that.
Bruns also commented on the need for small businesses needed to get up to speed on the business opportunities to be had by going on line.
“There are many reasons why people shop on line, not just cost,” he said.
Bruns offered to make himself available for a meeting with local business owners where he would be able to addresss local merchants directly.
“Business owners need to find out what they can do locally, and politicians need to have a conversation with both the present and propective governing parties now,” he advised.
It was also pointed out that potential newcomers to town were viewing communities like Keremeos – and its business section’s empty storefronts – with pessimism. Many real estate buyers opting to look elsewhere because of a perception that the town is dying. Bruns reitierated the need for local politicians to articulate their needs to provincial counterparts, and for the region’s business community to work on a business retention strategy.