Embracing a New Frontier in the Mile 0 City

City of Dawson Creek, B.C.


Maintaining a healthy mind and body is the greatest gift we give ourselves. It’s a constant conscious decision toward realizing our full potential guided by principles of commitment, self awareness and realizations of preconceived visions of what can be…
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The same could be said of healthy communities. Like healthy functional body systems, healthy communities make a conscious effort to provide their residents with the resources required to not only live to their fullest potential, but to thrive.

It’s a collaboration of social, economic, health and educational partnerships that will determine a community’s success toward the goal of sustainability and prosperity. The healthiest communities are places people want to live, achieved in large part through community effort and local government guidance. There’s a lot of competition among cities for attention. And Dawson Creek, British Columbia is getting just that.

Incorporated as a city in 1958 with a population of 13,000, Dawson Creek, also known as the Mile 0 site of the Alaska Highway, is the centre of the Peace River Country of northeast B.C. The city is a transportation hub with a regional airport and four major highways offering access in all directions, enabling the region to be seen as the ‘Centre of it All.’

It’s been recognized as one of Canada’s best small cities in 2014 according to Money Sense. It’s also recognized as one of the top five cities in the region for employment opportunities according to B.C. Business magazine.

There are a number of strong traditional sectors that drive the city’s growth – mining, forestry, agriculture and tourism. However, if projections are true, the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry may prove instrumental in transforming Dawson Creek and reshaping its economic landscape. The Montney gas field lies in the Peace River area straddling B.C. and Alberta. Its economic impact could be as great, or greater, than Alberta’s oil sands, some say. And its impact, an estimated $1 trillion over the next couple of decades, has investors scrambling to Dawson Creek for a piece of the pie.

“We anticipate it being transformational for the community and the region,” says Dale Bumstead, Dawson Creek’s Mayor. “When you talk to the industry companies who now have land holdings in the Montney around our city and the region, their eyes almost light up when they talk about the Montney as being a world class field.”

The activities related to field production and subsequent infrastructure “are all enormous capital projects – four and five hundred million dollar projects – that they undertake in order to put the infrastructure in place to develop the gas and ship it to the west coast,” he adds. “As a result of that, we’re finding that we’re getting a ton of development go on in the community with people looking to come in here who are working on these big projects for eight or nine months.”

The LNG industry, B.C. and Dawson Creek anticipate that final investment decisions will soon be made for the building of LNG plants on B.C.’s west coast. At least 18 different plants are being proposed. “We anticipate two or three real major ones,” shares Mayor Bumstead, indicating that the Malaysian state owned government company – Petronas – has substantial land holdings in the Montney. “So as they develop the LNG plant, they’re also developing the upstream facility [and] the gas in the northeast, so that’s one that we expect in the very near future.” The Petronas investment in B.C. is estimated to be $36 billion.

Shell also has a LNG proposal for the west coast of B.C. in early 2016. “Those two [companies] alone would change the landscape of energy production in western Canada,” affirms the Mayor.

The prospects of well paying jobs in the natural gas industry, a growing population, and a subsequent demand for housing and rental properties open up new avenues of opportunity for construction and management companies. Dawson Creek is experiencing new construction of apartments, duplexes and homes with suites. “It’s such a strong market right now in our community for people making those investments in residential development for the rental market,” says Mayor Bumstead.

Housing costs increased seven percent in 2013-2014, but Dawson Creek still remains an affordable city compared to other similar sized cities in B.C. A strong economic climate with high paying jobs “automatically starts to drive those components around housing,” explains the Mayor. “We need to look for ways to ensure that we try to keep that in a balance where it makes sense for people.”

Addressing the Fiscal Gap
Moving forward, communities look for a combination of policies and economic development strategies that will reduce the fiscal gap between revenue and spending – to strive for positive economic growth without losing sight of what residents deem an excellent quality of life. It’s a question of finding that perfect balance that makes a community desirable to both businesses and residents. It’s never an easy task considering the numerous provincial and municipal components required to build a healthy community – healthcare and education, healthy water, infrastructure, amenities, and arts and culture, to name a few.

These are all things that residents look for in a community, says Mayor Bumstead, noting that, “The quality of life that people look to for themselves and their families comes from basic things that they look to your community to provide… The industries who are looking to attract workers into the area are the same people that we look to to help build our community. What we need to do is ensure that we’re fiscally responsible in terms of how we build our community and ensure that we always are aware of the affordability metric for people to own a home.”

Efficient Transportation and Economic Diversity
The city’s ideal location provides a strong transportation hub to meet the needs of its businesses. With airport services, rail access and several highways connecting to Alberta, the Yukon, Alaska and the rest of B.C., the city is “unbelievable when you look at it in terms of our geographic location. Transportation is a big component.”

And Dawson Creek is definitely not a ‘one-horse town.’ A diversity of sectors enables the community to maximize opportunities for local businesses. Founded as an agricultural community in the early 1900s, this sector still remains a strong component of the city’s sustainability serving local and global markets. Forestry and OSB plants such as Louisiana-Pacific Building Products and Chetwynd Pulp, located an hour away, have also long had a strong presence in the area. Dawson Creek is one of two Timber Supply Areas (TSA), with over two million hectares providing numerous forestry opportunities.

The city is part of northeastern B.C’s Western Canada Sedimentary Basin (WCSB), producing most of this country’s oil and gas. Large players in this sector include Air Liquide, supplying oil and gas producers with liquid nitrogen, who completed a new plant in the city in 2012; and ARC Resources Limited, the third largest operator in the Montney play.

Other operators include Encana, a part of Dawson Creek’s landscape since the 1990s and a leading North American energy producer; and Ferus Incorporated, with an over $45 million investment for two liquid nitrogen facilities.

“Now we’re transforming from some of those core components of our community to this [LNG] sector. It’s exciting and it’s scary, all at the same time,” adds the Mayor. He also notes that surveys from a local community futures group indicate that at least eighty percent of businesses rely on the energy sector. “That’s a complete transformation from what it would have been 10 to 15 years ago. That’s an indication of how our community is transforming.”

An Educated and Employable Workforce
Known as B.C.’s Energy College, Northern Lights College has a campus in Dawson Creek offering university and training and apprenticeship programs. Opened in 1975, Northern Lights has a long standing relationship with industry, employers and policy makers and has been instrumental in graduating a highly educated and skilled workforce for the region. The city works in conjunction with the College to build a strong local skills base.

It’s not surprising that with a highly educated workforce and a diversity of employment prospects, B.C. economic statistics indicate that “the unemployment rate in the northeast of B.C. is so low that they can’t report it. It’s such a phenomenon when you see that [and] when you look at other areas of the province or the country that are facing difficult economic times… here, if you want a job, you can get a job.”

Safeguarding Heritage and Quality of Life
Beyond economics, healthy cities are powerful systems of cultural life and history that speak volumes about a sense of identity. Sometimes, as cities like Dawson Creek grow, new populations of people decide to call this place home, without fully comprehending or appreciating its historical past. Dawson Creek is on the verge of some monumental changes; but it doesn’t want to lose sight of its past, that unique time in history that defines the city of today.

Dawson Creek played a vital role in WWII with the construction of the Alaska Highway. It was strategically located, enough to warrant attention from the U.S. Army, who sent troops to the city’s train station in 1942 after the Pearl Harbour bombings the year before. These troops started the construction of the Highway as a security measure so that an overland transportation route could access Delta Junction, Alaska. It was then that the city’s population grew from 600 to over 10,000. The reference to Dawson Creek as Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway refers to the onset of construction from the railroad end in the city. The city became a boom town overnight.

Mayor Bumstead believes it’s imperative that his city values its history, heritage and identity. Safeguarding these values enables management of change and develops a sense of community pride and subsequent quality of life.

In fact, in 2014, Dawson Creek was rated the number one city (with population under 100,000) for quality of life, according to the Cities Journal website. “That’s the important message to me,” shares the Mayor. “When people move someplace they want to have a healthy and happy quality of life. You want to meet those needs that people have… for me it’s about how we build our community in a really deliberate, focused and strategic manner to guide us so that we are the number one small city in Canada for quality of life in 30 to 40 years.”

To be sure, Dawson Creek has so much to offer; it’s not all work and no play. The city’s Encana Centre seats 4500 and offers world class entertainment that “adds excitement to our community,” says Mayor Bumstead. The city boasts 110 indoor stables, a number of arenas, a performing arts centre, and a ski hill just five minutes from downtown. And of course, nature abounds with hiking, golfing, snowmobiling and ATVing at your doorstep – just to name a few of the area’s many amenities.

“Dawson Creek is my heart. It’s my home,” says lifelong resident Mayor Bumstead. “I’m proud to be the Mayor of Dawson Creek. I want people to be proud of living here.”

September 23, 2017, 3:48 PM EDT

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