While Saskatchewan cities grow and many rural communities fade, some small towns are refusing to go gently into that good night.
"Our school was dropping. Our last census was 292. We were losing our rail line, our elevator, our SaskPower," says Wayne Myren, the mayor of Ogema, a small town 80 miles south of Regina. But the dark hours for that small town have passed.
In 1989, residents dug in their pockets to save their dying community. In 2001, the town got together to form a strategic plan. Today, the town boasts an economic growth that is almost unrivalled in the province.
In the last five years, Ogema has created 90 new jobs, increased its population to about 330 and has created a diversified, stable economy. Recently, the town received an award from Communities in Bloom for the best sustainable development throughout all of Canada.
|Photo courtesy of Ogema Economic Development Committee|
|Wayne Myren, chair of the Ogema Economic Development Committee, and secretary-treasurer Carol Peterson have overseen the town's steady growth.|
How did they do it?
Teamwork, says Myren. "We're blessed to have 20 or 30 individuals here that will not say no. They will all take a leadership role or champion a project. And, to me, that's the No.-1 key."
Ogema's projects include purchasing the railway track and the local grain elevator, building a motel, restoring a train station, erecting a 28-building historic village, attracting a hog operation and, most recently, setting up a business for upgrading railcars to modern standards.
All without a drop of government funding.
Myren, chair of Ogema's economic development committee since 1989 and finishing his second term as mayor, says securing funding initially wasn't easy, but success breeds success. Attitudes changed as projects evolved. "Now when we do a project ... it's amazing. The last couple of projects, we've had, we've almost had to limit shareholders," says Myren.
Hosting a packed tradeshow on April 21 and 22, Ogema had a chance to herald its business successes and advertise its future.
The railcar business is important, says Myren. "We have the potential of 20 or 30 jobs with that. We have another set of barns that's being permitted as we speak ... that'll be another 50 jobs."
One Ogema company is also bidding on an Alberta oilfield project, which could bring another five to 10 jobs to the town.
Dana McCracken, owner of Omega Steel Industries Ltd., says he's happy doing business in Ogema, and has no plans to leave. "There are opportunities here. We're in the middle of nowhere, but in the middle of everything."
With lower costs than he would face in the city, his company has grown from two employees when it opened in 2000 to 22 in the summer of 2005.
|Kirk Clements, economic development officer for Gravelbourg, population about 1,200|
No matter how many new jobs he creates, and he expects more with the railcar business, "people just keep showing up to fill them.”
He says a lot of his workers are locals.
"Unfortunately, a lot of farmers need jobs so they can keep farming," McCracken says. "And most farmers, in most areas, are quite talented in a lot of different ways. They fix their own stuff. They build their own stuff. And a Saturday and a Sunday is the same as a Tuesday and a Wednesday."
But, when needed, his company also moves families into town. "A lot of people, believe it or not," he says, "want to live in small-town Saskatchewan in a rural setting and have a job that pays decently, versus living in the city where you can look out your bathroom window and see your neighbour."
Statistics show that interest in rural business is not limited to Ogema.
An Action Committee on the Rural Economy (ACRE) report in March 2005 reveals that about 70 per cent of Saskatchewan businesses are located in rural areas and the number of rural businesses increased by 12.2 per cent from 59,700 in 1998 to 67,004 in 2003.
The number of young entrepreneurs in the province is also on the rise. A February 2006 report by Sask Trends Monitor shows the number of young entrepreneurs and professionals has increased from about 44,000 in 2003 to just under 50,000 in 2005.
At the same time, the focus on agricultural business is declining. An October 2005 report by the same group shows farm cash receipts, one indicator of the importance of agriculture in the economy, has been steadily declining from about 27 per cent of GDP in 1981 to less than 15 per cent in 2003.
In spite of those trends, don't think for a second that growing a small town is easy, says Myren. "It is a struggle. Everything we do, we swim upstream. We prove our credibility every day because we live outside the box and people in offices look at us as demographics and say: 'Three hundred people? Are you nuts?' " Kirk Clements, economic development officer for Gravelbourg, a town of about 1,200 people 70 miles southwest of Moose Jaw, says the challenge is convincing young people that there are opportunities to be had in small towns.
"The main thing we have to do is grow the population over the next 10 years so that, first of all, we can keep the services we have so that the government doesn't centralize us out of existence. And second, make the existing services that much more affordable."
Gravelbourg is experiencing an "entrepreneurial revival," Clements notes. "We're doing business plans all the time, and a lot of the younger families are starting their own businesses."
Fitting with the trend of declining focus on agriculture, the businesses starting up in Gravelbourg are varied. "We've had healthcare, we've had a building trade, we've had machinists and that sort of thing," says Clements.
But attracting businesses isn't just about enticing young families, he adds. "It's always nice when you walk down the street and see baby buggies" but to grow the population, he says a town must "create an environment that allows people to take a chance and follow their dream."
Creating that atmosphere may involve tax incentives, access to capital at advantageous rates, or support in business-planning activities.
Planning, in particular, is key. Clements says Gravelbourg thought long and hard about projects appropriate for the town. After years of feasibility studies, the town settled on one sector.
"It turns out that we are in the best mustard-growing area in, basically, all of Canada," Clements says. "Saskatchewan itself exports 80 per cent of the world's requirement of imported mustard. But we don't do anything with it. We bag it and send it away."
So the town found its niche - an opportunity they now call "the mustard project.”
The project includes milling, crushing, finding a use for the meal after it's been crushed and seeking value in the byproducts after that point of processing.
"The big sizzle is the biodiesel aspect of it," notes Clements, "but that's only 20 per cent of the project."
While Gravelbourg has high hopes for the future, Ogema's mayor Myren says only one thing stands in the way of any small town's success. "I think the potential for any town doing it is there. It's whether the will or desire of the people to make the difference is there."
(Nicole Strandlund can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)