How to grow Rossland's economy Volume 1: Talent Factory

Andrew Zwicker
By Andrew Zwicker
February 18th, 2010

This is the first in a series of coloumns that will attempt to explore and put forward some new ideas and new twists on existing ideas around how to grow Rossland’s economy. The ideas put forth are designed not as set-in-stone plans but rather as starting points for discussion in an attempt to broaden our views on what could be done in our little mountain town. In this first installment, Andrew Zwicker explores the possibility of creating a post-secondary institution in Rossland

When conversations veer towards schools in Rossland, talk as of late has been about how to keep our schools from closing. This week, I’ll explore the concept of perhaps opening new schools and offering new educational opportunities as a way to boost our city’s economy and grow its population. 

It’s widely accepted around town that keeping K-12 in town is critical to our city’s continued existence as a viable community as opposed to a suburb of Trail. There have been some thoughts around losing our schools being a major negative impact on the local economy as well. The simple argument is that if we don’t have schools then we might as well kiss goodbye young families, who will likely leave for another town where their kids can go to school close to home. As those young families leave town so too will the businesses and services that cater to them, as well as the volunteer efforts that are in a big way championed by that demographic.

Let’s flip that equation. If schools closing would certainly cause a major hit to our economy, opening new schools could conversely give a big boost to town. Now you’re probably thinking, ‘we have declining enrolments and the schools we have now are nowhere near capacity’. I’m thinking in a new direction, though, outside of elementary and secondary schools. I’m thinking Rossland is an ideal candidate for a small, specialized post secondary institution. We could very well be the location for Canada’s second private liberal arts university.

While the concept of liberal arts schools is common fare in the US, the first such Canadian school opened in Squamish just three years ago. Known simply and appropriately as Quest, this unique take on the post secondary institution certainly was a quest—first to get acceptance and degree granting ability in Canada and then to get acceptance, cooperation and, ultimately, construction in Squamish. To learn more about that effort, the school and liberal arts schools in general check our Quest’s website at www.questu.ca

Quest’s programming and course options are unique in many ways to traditional universities in Canada; Taken in a block format where students take one course at a time only, every student graduates with the same Bachelor of Arts or Science degree. I would suggest Rossland could pull this off and choose a general direction for the school in a field that fits the emerging green economy of the world as well as fitting many of the principles that Rosslanders hold dear. 

Often suggestions of ways to boost Rossland’s economy and new developments are met with the thought that they don’t fit with what Rossland is all about. It’s been said many times and many ways that Rosslanders should start with what we do best here and grow that as opposed to looking in brand new directions that may or may not fit with the exiting town and could threaten the way of life we treasure. Focussing the school’s single degree on something such as environmental science would be a natural fit.

Such a school would be very small scale in comparison to other universities in Canada. (Think a first year class of 100 students, perhaps growing to 300-400 down the road). The first step would be finding a location for the school and money to construct it. Even small universities are expensive endeavours to construct. In Squamish, Quest partnered with the city, who granted the university a 60 acre swath of land on a hillside. The university then sold environmentally-friendly housing on a portion of the site to pay for the construction of the university. This may or may not be possible in Rossland with its limited buildable land. We could, however, use some existing facilities and rebuild/renovate them along with a smaller less expensive version of Quest. 

One suggestion. If Maclean elementary merges with RSS, it might be possible to use the Maclean/Annex site for our university. Keep in mind the school itself would need one building of classrooms and administration and one dormitory building. This small footprint to accommodate only a few hundred students could fit easily on the Maclean site. The Annex could be “annexed” and renovated to be a more up to date recreational facility / gym. Said gym/fitness centre could also be opened to the public to make it more viable. Perhaps an existing gym (Better Life?) could move in and operate the facility as both a business and student facility.

The Maclean site is also just two blocks from the arena. As part of a fundraising effort to build the school between grants and donations from large organizations in the area such as Fortis, Columbia Basin Trust and such, the city could gain some efficiencies and include the arena in that project. The arena could be rebuilt or heavily-renovated to be a university/city facility partially funded by the university. Perhaps the new university could also have a hockey team as a regular tenant helping to fund the new arena?

The economic impact of this school would be both direct and indirect. First it would attract and draw, just as Quest does, students from across Canada and around the world. The unique course offering of the school and a unique small town with great mountain biking and skiing will bring the students. The prospect of a safe small town with dormitories on the school site would appeal to parents who are sending their kids away from home for the first time. Attracting students on a small 100 to 400 student level would be relatively easy.

The immediate beneficiaries of, let’s say, 200 students in town would be felt by many businesses. The obvious benefactors would be the bars and restaurants. Benefits would also accrue to the grocery store, ski hill, convenience stores and hotels for visiting parents and friends. The MacLean site would be very easy walking distance to the downtown core. Opportunities for new businesses such as a laundromat and other service businesses would also be boosted.

In addition to attracting new students and a sorely missing demographic in town of the 18-30 year old, one of the conditions of the new school would be guaranteeing a certain amount of seats to Rosslanders. Perhaps this comes in the form of a scholarship from one of the large institutions around such as the CBT. Currently, unless our children want to go to Selkirk College or not go to post secondary school at all, our bright young population and future workforce all migrate out of town when they graduate from RSS. If we’re lucky, we get some of them back when they hit 30 and are thinking about kids. Sadly, most don’t come back and thus Rossland suffers from brain drain syndrome. We raise great young kids with good small town and environmental morals and then populate the rest of the world with them, keeping few, if any, at home to continue on and grow Rossland’s unique culture and economy.

In addition to the students, a school of this size would create about 50 full time well paying jobs for professors, registrars and other staff. That either creates new full timer well paying jobs for locals and/or attracts up to 50 more families to town. Those 50 people all need housing, will all shop and contribute tax dollars and who knows might even have kids to help keep our public schools open.

We want new and exciting things to happen in town , but with our new and exciting population migrating out of town at 18, opportunities leave with them. Who better to grow the local economy with new businesses and services than the kids who grew up here and understand local values? That scenario certainly seems more appealing at first blush than relying on out-of-towners setting up business in town and/or the oft-mentioned nomadic entrepreneur. The benefit of keeping a good chunk of our young folks in town for their education would be less direct than the influx of new students; however, keeping our home grown talent in town, educating them here and keeping many of those here to run with their new ideas would be a long term positive trend for Rossland.

While it would certainly take a concerted effort in terms of both time and money, a unique small post secondary school in Rossland could be one key piece in building Rossland’s economy without dramatically changing the face of the city. Rather than import and or develop one or two large employers, setting up a small liberal arts university in Rossland would be akin to building a talent factory in town to slow our local brain drain as well as attract new bright young minds to the region. Many of them will not stay after their schooling, of course, but some will. For those who don’t, we can consider that Rossland’s contribution to the world of bringing young outsiders in, showing them our genuine and unique way of life and sending them back out into the world to spread the good word that is Rossland. Those who do stay will be the next generation of new business owners, enterprising employees, volunteers, home owners and tax payers. There is no argument our population is ageing and our productivity decreasing. The prospects of a significant piece of the Rossland pie that helps renew our population could be a welcome prospect in town. 

To keep this article relatively short and readable I have just touched on some initial ideas without going to deep into them. I welcome your thoughts, suggestions and questions to continue the discussion and grow the idea. Could Rossland pull off a game-changer such as this?

Categories: Op/Ed

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