The population explosion, or not
By Bill Phillips
Can we have a thriving economy that isn’t constantly growing?
We seem to measure economic success by growth. Having spent my life in a sale-driven business I know that story only too well. If you did $100K in January last year, you should be doing $110K this year and $120K next. Not that growing is bad, it isn’t, but do we always have to outpace ourselves, year after year? Can we ever be happy just being what we are, if what we are is pretty darned good already?
News last week that Prince George’s population has continued to decline caught Mayor Lyn Hall by surprise and have several realtors in town in full denial. B.C. Stats, using Hydro connection numbers and health client registry numbers, have put the city’s population at 71,363, down 1,958 from the year before. This comes after the city’s population dropped by 671 the year before.
Hall and others are befuddled because the city’s economy continues to tick along. Unemployment is low, house sales are brisk, new developments are coming to town, building permits are humming along, etc.
And yet people are leaving the city.
In addition, the phenomenon isn’t limited to the past couple of years. Colin Kinsley, when he was mayor, was set to do the Conservatives’ dirty work for them and lay StatsCan to waste when the federal agency came out with population numbers he didn’t like.
Are the B.C. Stats numbers really that far out of whack? Are we trying to diminish bad news by donning our rose-coloureds glasses? Or are we finding it hard to reconcile the possibility that population can shrink even with good economic indicators?
It’s certainly puzzling, but it could be the new reality.
One thing that has to be taken into consideration is that the dismal days of 2008/09 seemed to be what economists call a “correction.” Industries that got hit hard in 2008 recovered, but not to pre-2008. The new reality was less.
That is certainly true in what is still the main driver of our economy, the forest industry. For example, if a mill was running with 500 workers pre-2008, they’re probably running with 350 now.
So if that adjustment has taken place, it means the people who are left are still working in good paying, secure jobs, and that creates a stable economy. In a stable economy, with people working, new houses will be built, new developments will occur, people will buy new houses, etc. We just might not see population growth.
Having said that, seeing the population dip by almost 3,000 people in the past two years is cause for concern.
Don Zurowski ran for mayor on a platform of trying to get the city’s population to 100,000 people. He didn’t have a concrete plan of how to do that, but the rationale is sound. Prince George has the infrastructure in place for another 20,000 people or so. In other words, we could handle a population boom without having to build a new arena, new schools, new pool, etc. New houses, yes, but not new city infrastructure. The city would certainly reap the benefit of more tax dollars or, perhaps, not have to tax everyone at the high level they are now (good luck with that, but it could happen). That would mean having more money to fix roads, etc. Plus, more population means more funds from higher levels of government.
Same goes for the school district. It is funded by a per-student formula, so just imagine what another couple thousand students would mean to the district. It would mean keeping schools open instead of closing them.
The new reality might be that a stagnant population doesn’t necessarily mean a stagnant economy, or perhaps that’s just a Prince George anomaly.
Thankfully we’re returning to the long-form census that, hopefully, will provide a more accurate population picture this year.
Bill Phillips is a freelance columnist living in Prince George. He was the winner of the 2009 Best Editorial award at the British Columbia/Yukon Community Newspaper Association’s Ma Murray awards, in 2007 he won the association’s Best Columnist award. In 2004, he placed third in the Canadian Community Newspaper best columnist category and, in 2003, placed second. He can be reached at email@example.com