Commentary – What figures for the future of rural communities?

Richard Froese
What is the future of small rural communities as their populations continue to decline? That’s the situation from the 2016 census figures from Statistics Canada released Feb. 1.

Locally, population in all but one municipality in the Slave Lake, High Prairie and Falher area has decreased since the previous census on 2011.

That supports the national trend that 45 per cent of small communities are shrinking in population. On a positive side, the Village of Donnelly grew to 342 from 305. Some may question the numbers for Slave Lake in 2011 when the census period was during the time of the great wildfire that swept that region.

Alberta’s population has increased by more than 20 per cent in the past eight years, a high portion of that to larger communities and cities.

How do, and how can, those communities, our local towns, with decreasing populations survive and remain sustainable, especially for the long term?

Fewer people means municipalities have to find tax revenue from other resources or higher taxes to property owners to maintain infrastructure and services such as recreation centres, libraries, roads, water and sewer. Eventually facilities such as ice arenas are used by fewer people, becoming too costly to operate, and then close down.

Joining resources is the most viable. When people hear the word amalgamation, they somehow fear that their community will suffer or even die.

If a city like Edmonton with 1 million people has one government, why do we need all these small municipalities, when they can come under one local government, like other rural areas have successfully done? Regional and collaboration are the key concepts promoted by provincial and federal governments of all colours. Only by local regional partnerships can small towns survive and be economically sustainable and viable.

When I moved from B.C. to Alberta in January 2002, I came to work for the Smoky River Express. In one of my first columns, I questioned why a small region with a population of about 5,000 at the time had five municipalities with a total of 30 elected officials, along with three ice arenas and three curling rinks.

Many people agreed with that view.

Back in February 2015, the Town of High Prairie council received a study to amalgamate with the M.D. of Big Lakes, recommended in an assessment report from Wilde and Company dated Dec. 2, 2014.

The report concludes that limited funding and tax revenue restricted the town from supporting long-term capital projects and infrastructure.

That was for a town with around 2,600 people.

So if a town with that population was considered to be unviable then, certainly municipalities with lower population must face harder challenges to remain viable and sustainable.

“Without growth in the tax base or reduction of services, the town will have serious challenges funding the required significant capital replacement,” the report states.

However, since then, the town has welcomed many new major taxpayers with new commercial developments and businesses. While many communities have seen several businesses close their doors, only economic growth will sustain small and rural region viable in the future.

Neighbouring small towns have long histories of working together, and that can be strengthened.

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