COMMENTARY · 7th July 2010
I was raised in Kitimat, starting in the Smeltersite days. In retirement now, I return every summer from Quebec. I am hugely fond of the city and of its people. Like everyone, I also have a huge concern for the current economic situation. In only a week of intense discussions with over fifty citizens, including some business, municipal, social services, retired and other folks, I have learned that there is unanimous agreement, relative to addressing this situation, that:
- there is great dysfunction between the leaders of important community organizations, within the elected city council and between the council and city administration;
- the function of economic development is both disparate and overlapping, with no single, strong, clear, credible and accountable leadership;
- there is no evidence of a sense of urgency, or passion, by community leaders to deal pro-actively and cooperatively with the most serious situation that that the city has ever faced;
- due to the above reality, sadly and tragically, there is a sense of growing hopelessness.
As my memory goes back to the days of my youth, I recall the great leaders of early Kitimat, of whom many of the city’s streets are named, and I know that they would have rapidly and competently organized to provide the leadership and action to overcome this, or any other, challenge.
People in the city are under severe stress. One lady cried while she related her family’s plight to me. Citizens love this great city. Serious survival decisions are being made, and will continue to be made, at an escalating rate, most of them detrimental to the future of the city, because there is no alternative in sight but to leave, particularly given the above scenario.
I have been communicating with officials of Elliott Lake, a company town that was centered on uranium mining until a total shutdown occurred in the early 1990’s. The city’s population, which had peaked at 16,500, spiraled downward, and average houses were selling for only $25,000. The population was projected to fall to only 5,000, however, the city’s leaders and citizens rallied, overcame personal animosities and other obstacles to use radical approaches to turn potential disaster into a grand success. They held the population drop to 11,500 and, today, real estate values have totally recovered with a vacancy rate of only 2% to 3 %. The city is proud to broadcast itself as the “Centre of Excellence for Retirement in Canada”. Over 55 % of the residents are over 55 years.
The City of Elliott Lake still advertises regularly on TV to draw wide attention to its many advantages, many, as for in Kitimat, that had been established during the years of wealthy and generous motherhood. Over $500 million is being spent on new development. The city’s success story, and the lessons learned from it, are readily available on all sorts of media. Elliott Lake is not the only source of valuable information, nor may their approach be fully appropriate for Kitimat.
Given current leadership dysfunction, a worst case, and guaranteed, population decline scenario can be projected, and with it, the further decline in business, education and social services due to such. One should also be able to forecast, and action, the rapid decrease of remuneration to city authorities due to reduced responsibilities and taxpayer affordability. For obvious reasons, this will not happen without radical change or until the citizen’s anger reaches a breaking point. Even so, it may be too late and everyone will be guaranteed to lose. No one wants any of this.
Vacancy rates in the city remain the highest in B.C. and will escalate higher. Homes are being abandoned and soon the municipality may be in the real estate business more so than in providing services. Currently, there are a record 160 residential listings for sale, even more than when the town of Kemano died, and almost quadruple the number of listings which existed in January 2008. Many of these homes are already empty. House values are decreasing and will continue to do so. The average mortgage in the city is around $96,000 and, as the average house value approaches this, the easier will be the decision to abandon even more properties to the municipality. Elliott Lake quickly formed a non-profit corporation to deal with all of this.
Kitimat’s mayor and municipal councilors must be the overall leaders, and must be seen as the leaders, to drive resolution of the serious dysfunction problem. Most urgently, and with an all out effort, they must put in place the leadership and resources necessary to address resolution. Citizens unanimously feel passionately that city leadership has not demonstrated, and is not capable of demonstrating, the necessary leadership, cooperation and skill to do the job. Like it or not, this perception is a fact.
It is strongly felt that a new organization needs to be established and that all current economic development activity, including any other ‘save the city’ functions, need to be centralized to this organization. A credible and qualified/talented individual needs to be selected to be the leader. For the sake of the city, this position, for perhaps the next decade, will be even more important than that of the city manager. It needs to report directly to the mayor and council … and must be given the freedom, trust and resources to get the job done. Micro-management of this function must be forbidden. Every single leader and organization in the city will need to make it a number one priority to provide support in every manner, particularly with respect to cooperation and finances.
City leaders need to act immediately … as though fighting a war. Direction, objectives, plans, resources, action, progress measurement, regular communication with the public, and much more, need to be provided with a sense of real passion and urgency. Every single community leader (and you know who you are) must assume that, today, you are seen to be an obstacle to progress until proven otherwise. In particular, you must demonstrate your ability to be a leader, a team player, to cooperate, to compromise and to be seen by the people that you serve, as demonstrating such. This is not the case now.
On July 1st, I watched the annual parade with fond memories of similar ones in the past. Sadly, I also imagined a crowd-less parade in a near future year, with a single float, in the form of a boxing ring, containing the leaders of the city, while slowly passing by empty house after empty house.
Every single resident of the city needs the community leaders to lead them in this time of severe crisis. They want the leaders to be successful for them. They want to cheer for success. They love their city. They want to help. There are talented untapped resources, including youth, all over the city.
This is a serious, serious matter. Leadership, teamwork, and radical change to provide such, are urgently needed.
Comment by Doug Collier on 9th July 2010
Thank-you for still caring about the little town you once live in. While I was reading I could feel your emotions for this town.
I can now only hope that council will be able to read it and learn from it, with out dissecting every sentence and looking for an argument. It's time that council puts aside the past and works as one. The citizens of Kitimat need to help council and stop pushing their buttons, stop instigating them against one another. Remember council we voted you in in hopes of renewing our community.
very well written
Comment by Steve Smyth on 8th July 2010
Great job Mr Connolly, you have hit the nail on the head-no more fighting, no more spending 3 days on Roberts Rules of Order or making brownie points.
Samuel johnston once remarked that "nothing focuses a man's attention as the knowledge that he's about to be hanged"
I think the good people of Kitimat have seen the writing on the wall and read it clearer than they ever have in years past. Good luck to them all.
Comment by Bryan Notheisz on 8th July 2010
For the most part, I agree. Your commentary is well thought out. I did not grow up in Kitimat, but came to Kitimat yearly when I was young to visit family, and at that time there was certainly a vibrancy that is lacking now. I could go on at length on what I see as the causes, and on what is wrong now, but I don't feel like getting into an online debate with the 50% who disagree.
The area of Kitimat and Terrace combined has huge potential with land, people, transportation, low costs etc, we just need a vision to see it realised.
Comment by Bill Drinkwater on 8th July 2010
Well written. What is needed now is a council working together for the betterment of the community. Leadership in times of stress is of the most importance.
Comment by Steven on 8th July 2010
Steve, your words are very true. I do not want to mention any names but I can honestly say many people do not want help from outside. It is time for the next generation to take over leadership of Kitimat with new ideas and push us into a new direction.Sadly, it is being prevented.There was an individual from Tokyo who really wanted to help but I haven't heard much about him over the last few months, I guess Kitimat doesn't like a successful former young member of Kitimat returning. I guess we don't want our youth to return to help.