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Prince George and the future of resource-based communities

B.C.'s northern capital knows first-hand how resource development can improve city services.
The Wood Innovation and Design Centre is at the centre of a revitalized downtown Prince George that features new restaurants, craft breweries, and housing projects.

This week, Prince George is hosting one of the most important annual natural resource conferences in Canada. The BC Natural Resources Forum attracts close to 1,000 delegates including CEOs and experts involved with Canada’s natural resource industry. The sessions provide valuable information for resource-based communities that are intertwined with the mills, mines, ports, and pipelines.

Among resource-based communities, Prince George is a big one. It’s a city of about 75,000 that provides services and supplies for central and northern BC while being a transportation hub and forest products manufacturing centre. In fact, delegates to the Natural Resources Forum could see evidence of the future of natural resources and resource-based communities simply by walking around Prince George.

The ideal place to start would be in our downtown. A landmark new building is the Wood Innovation and Design Centre (WIDC), which – at close to 30m – was the tallest wood building in Canada when it opened in 2014. Just looking around the lobby reveals many of the country’s forest product innovations over the last generation. Right next door is UNBC’s Wood Innovation Research Lab, less than a year old, which gives visitors a peek into the future of wood buildings. Correct that: the future of all buildings.

The WIRL, as it’s known, is the most airtight building in North America and the first passive house structure in Prince George. Actually, it’s the first industrial building to be passive house certified in North America. It wasn’t a simple certification to meet: at 30m square and 10m high, it’s a big space, intended to give students and faculty in the University’s wood engineering program a place to build wood structures and then break them. It’s true, only by breaking these structures do students understand what the limits are of building with wood – and then learn how to surpass them.

The building itself is their greatest class project to date. Super energy-efficient (the walls are 50cm thick!) and entirely constructed with wood, the building needs about as much energy to heat or cool as a normal home. The know-how needed to build the WIRL also came from local companies that provided wood building components. Even the structure itself was built by a local construction company.

Both the WIRL and the WIDC open onto a new City park, Wood Innovation Square, that will open later this year and provide a new park space downtown that will also be a place where students can showcase their wood projects for all to see.

A block away, another transformative project for Prince George is underway. A new condo project is being built, the first of its kind in the downtown. For the City Centre, it represents confidence from investors and enthusiasm among residents and it’s being built on top of a new City parkade. The project demonstrates a partnership between the City and the private sector, with the participation of the Northern Development Initiative Trust – a supporter of economic development in our region. When complete, the development will provide more than 150 housing units, providing an unprecedented social and economic boost to the downtown.

Construction is happening all over Prince George, not just in the downtown. There were more than 500 building permits issued in 2018 and the value of those permits shattered the previous record (from more than a decade ago) by 26%. It’s all evidence of a population that is growing.

It’s the “good, old-fashioned” resource and transportation sectors that are behind much of the growth and the optimism. CN’s volumes at its Prince George yard were up 11% over the last year and the development of a new pipeline for LNG promises jobs and opportunity in Prince George. In fact, Coastal GasLink is planning to hold a regional economic summit in Prince George this spring, providing opportunities for sub-contractors and individual job seekers.

Critical for communities today is the ability to prepare people for local jobs and opportunity. These jobs might be in natural resources, but also in hospitals, schools, businesses, and government offices.  Prince George is fortunate to have a thriving post-secondary sector providing educational opportunities for thousands of local residents (growth in Aboriginal students is up 14% at UNBC) while also attracting faculty and students from around the world. They’re attending great institutions: UNBC, for example, is the only small university in Canada to be ranked top three by Maclean’s every year for the last decade. Even better, the majority of graduates from our college and university stay in our region. They work here, live here, and make our communities better places.

Which brings us back downtown. As our community grows, changes, and develops, the City is investing in services and infrastructure. We’ve recently provided a new and improved home for our Farmers Market and we’re also working with the Community Arts Council to bring them and their programs and events into the city centre. We’re working with partners and the Government of BC to explore opportunities for integrating housing with health care services. And we’re investing in aging infrastructure both above and below ground.

To that end, we’ll soon be building a pool that will be the first new recreation facility we’ve built downtown in 20 years.  By connecting the new pool to our downtown renewable energy system (using sawmill residue from Lakeland Mills), for example, we estimate that we’ll reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80% compared to a typical pool heated with natural gas.

More than being for aquatic recreation, this new pool is actually a perfect reflection of our community as a whole. The building will support active and healthy living, and be welcoming, accessible, modern, and sustainable – just like Prince George. We feel that making our community as good as it can be, and simply a place that people want to live, is actually the best thing we can do for the future of our natural resource industries. After all their employees are our citizens with all of us working together for a prosperous future.

Lyn Hall is the mayor of Prince George, British Columbia.