Sask Chamber CEO says positivity the key to growth

·8 min read

Southeast Saskatchewan is growing, according to Sask Health numbers, particularly Moosomin and its surrounding areas. Over the last 10 years Moosomin has grown by 14.6 per cent and by 32 per cent over the last 15 years—surrounding municipalities have also either stayed about the same or grown.

This isn’t the case outside the region, with other rural communities seeing a decrease in size in the last decade. Moosomin and its surrounding area have the benefit of the mining industry playing an important role in growth, but Sask Chamber of Commerce CEO Steve McLellan says there’s more to it than that.

“There are some certain natural assets that have been capitalized on—like the oil sector, like the potash sector—but even within Moosomin’s geographic area, not every community has grown,” he said. “My assessment would be quite simple, Moosomin looks like a great place to live, and it is a great place to live, and that’s drawn people who will drive outside of the community to work elsewhere. It’s got those basic amenities, it’s got a hospital, it’s got a nice downtown, it’s got restaurants, it’s got hotels out on the highway, and it’s got a positive attitude. It looks like a winner and that’s what people want, so if it looks like a community that’s going backwards with how it looks and how it feels, then people won’t want to live there and they won’t stay there.

“Moosomin has got those amenities that will keep people in the neighbourhood, rather than driving all the way to Yorkton and commuting to the mines, or driving from Carlyle to the oil sector. Moosomin has people who say, ‘I want to live in this town, it’s got everything I need and looks like a winner, I’d be wise to live here.’ All of amenities make a difference. There are different things to look for in a town—younger people want to make sure there’s things to do, places for their kids to skate, good schools that aren’t falling apart and at risk of closing, and as they get older they want to make sure there’s a healthcare facility that will look after them. Everybody wants to know that there’s decent retail that will give me all the products that I need and at easy access.

“I think we’re going to see places like Moosomin become even bigger and grow even faster as smaller towns who can’t fit that bill start to decrease in population,” he said. “The only exception will be smaller communities that are near a lake or something that has a draw like that, but I think Moosomin will always be a very popular and lively growing community.”

McLellan also thinks publicizing the assets a town has plays a key role in attracting people from surrounding areas and building buzz about the community.

“The reality of it is, not only do you have to have those things, but you have to tell people that you have them,” he said. “For example, the skate way that Moosomin has in town, I saw in an issue of the paper. Those things make a difference, that’s good exposure. Everyone that is relatively new to town and even those who have been around a while, when they’re on the phone or on a Zoom with someone living elsewhere and they say, ‘what did you do this week?’ and one person from another community says, ‘I’m bored as can be,’ and the Moosomin person says, ‘we went skate,’ or even if they didn’t go on it, they know about it because it’s been covered so well and they’ve got plans to use it.

“Not every town has someone out there to let everybody know that they have these things. That’s a part of the responsibility, but also the opportunity of a community newspaper to make sure people know all these assets and keep remind them because you might not be a skater today, but in two weeks when you’re as bored as can be and want to get outside you’ll go downtown buy a pair of skates and figure out you love skating because you haven’t done it in thirty years. All those things are part of what keeps communities vibrant and keeps people in those communities.”

Continuity in the community between the town council, economic development officer, rec department, business leaders, and everybody in-between is paramount for promoting growth and ensuring strong involvement says McLellan.

“They need to get active,” he said. “Growth is not accidental and very seldom is it totally organic. It’s intentional, Moosomin’s economic development folks have been active to invite companies like Canalta to come to town. The town has worked very closely with the mines and the oil company to make sure what they need is available and that they feel welcome in the community. It’s absolutely an intentional outcome and if you’re not intentional, strategic, and co-ordinated in how you do that.

“Whether it’s the rec board working with the economic development board or local chamber helping to identify new opportunities and celebrate new businesses, but it has to be a co-ordinated effort without it being overly organized. It’s got to be intentional and communities that are sitting on their heels saying, ‘jeez, poor us,’ they’ll continue to go down because nobody wants to be part of that attitude and it’s a long way often from a negative attitude to a positive growth rate—there’s a direct link between the two.”

If a rural area is to thrive, McLellan believes it has everything to do with the collective positivity of the townspeople and he says that starts at the top with community leaders and it trickles down.

“Even to the young person that works at the gas station, when someone drives through and they say, ‘welcome to Moosomin!’ or something that just shows the positive attitude, that matters,” he said. “If they’re driving across the country and they stop at 20 gas stations, which is the one they remember? Those sorts of goodwill assets are certainly useful and again, when you drive through it, it looks like a town you want to live in and that’s the attitude Moosomin projects.

“It has potential with surrounding industries—there’s a lot of work that has made it so successful—but I think it will continue because of the collective will. Moosomin’s local chamber is very active, the economic development folks work well, and there’s good leadership at the municipal level and certainly the MLA, Steven Bonk, is a champion for the Moosomin area and the province. All of those things combined, like I say, there’s a direct line between a negative attitude and negative growth.”

Something McLellan sees as a quick fix is help from the provincial and federal government. He believes if the change doesn’t start from within the community then assistance from outside of it won’t have a lasting impact.

“It has to start with the communities,” he said. “The worst thing and the shortest term success would be a government grant that helped the community do something. It has to start internally and the only way for it to be sustainable is for it to be done that way. If the municipality puts money into it, then that’s great because it’s your own community. The province can’t give you a grant that creates a positive environment, they can give you a grant to help strategy, but it’s much better done if it’s done at the municipal level.

“They can assist things, like making sure there’s a program to have a senior centre built where there’s community shared ownership or fundraising, they can make sure they’re very careful on determination of healthcare services and how those facilities are funded, and they can certainly have a bigger stake—as can the private sector—in things like infrastructure for internet. Those types of things make life in a smaller community different, not more challenging, but different if indeed things like access to internet or business or kids learning are harder to access in rural Saskatchewan—the province has a role in helping there, but I don’t think they have a direct role in making people more positive.

“You need to want to come together as a community and when you do that, you don’t need a grant, you just need a group of committed individuals and great things will happen. All the provincial or federal government can give you is a temporary high,” he said. “It needs to be sustainable because otherwise you become a one hit wonder and people may say, ‘oh my gosh this is good, I’m going to move there,’ and then they get there and there’s no positivity. Even elected leadership can be ambassadors for it, but you need people who aren’t on council to help produce events and celebrate great things that are happening in the community.

“Delegates can do that, they should recognize the good things Moosomin is doing and congratulate the town and expansion, and they do that through people like Steven Bonk. But other than that, I’d argue, it has got to be at the grassroots level for it to be sustainable because it’s not a short-term high you’re looking for.”

Rob Paul, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The World-Spectator