The mood of a nation: Prince Rupert, B.C.

Businesses throughout Canada share economic worries.

Businesses throughout Canada share economic worries.

Outreach worker Myles Moreau takes a drive around Prince Rupert, B.C. Moreau has worked in town for more than 20 years, having watched the northern community’s economic decline first-hand. Even though he believes the port development will ultimately benefit the town economically, he’s concerned growth will attract more crime.

The transformation of Price Rupert’s port has been drawing a lot of attention to the small community tucked away in northwestern British Columbia. The sleepy airport that normally receives a handful of flights a day was overwhelmed with private jets when the town celebrated the arrival of its first container ship late last year, recalls Prince Rupert Port Authority CEO Don Krusel. Calls from real estate speculators began a full two years before that, shortly after it was announced the port would be revitalized. The town is also on the radar of prominent real estate investor and author Ozzie Jurock. He’s called it one of the most important cities of the 21st century. (He also expects some spillover in nearby Prince George, by the way.)

But people who actually live in Prince Rupert have a different perspective. “The port is not making us a boom town. We’re not Fort McMurray,” says realtor Allen Moore. Prince Rupert is constrained in a few ways, not the least of which is physical: it’s on an island with a mountain smack dab in the middle of it. A total of 13 housing starts were recorded between 2005 and 2007, and access isn’t the greatest either, since the airport is located on a separate island. Upon arrival at the airport, luggage is unceremoniously tossed into the back of a truck and visitors board one of two buses that are driven onto a ferry for the 10-minute journey across an inlet to Prince Rupert.

But the town doesn’t need to become another Fort McMurray; reversing the population decline would be cause enough for celebration. (Prince Rupert, with a current population of less than 13,000, lost nearly 2,000 people between 2001 and 2006.) There are still many opportunities to be exploited, as well, such as what the shipping industry calls “back haul.” The containers coming into Prince Rupert are filled with goods, but most of them go back empty. Obviously, that’s not efficient.

“We have to move up the value chain,” Krusel says. “Figure out what the economies of Asia require and what we have to offer, and fill these containers.” Forestry towns, Krusel suggests, could use two-by-fours to build modular homes to ship to Asia. The Alcan plant in Kitimat, B.C. is already shipping aluminum ingots to Asia through Prince Rupert. Not only could back haul benefit other industries in Canada by reducing transportation times, but it will help the port attract another shipping line, Krusel says.

There are traditionalists in Prince Rupert, however, like outreach worker Myles Moreau. Sure, he wants the town to improve economically, but he’s worried about the crime that could be attracted. And, as he strolls through the downtown shopping mall with its many vacant shops, he expresses doubts about just how much the city can grow. “This used to be a park,” he says. “And look—a lot of the stores are just empty.”