Search for B.C.'s Best Small Town: Championship semifinals

·3 min read
 (CBC News - image credit)
(CBC News - image credit)

The finalists from the Interior and north in the Search for B.C.'s Best Small Town are separated by 950 kilometres, several mountain ranges, and at this time a year, an hour on the clock.

And yet, Smithers is a mid-sized mountain town with a postcard-worthy main street.

So is Kimberley.

"We're incredibly similar at first blush," said Kimberley Mayor Don McCormick.

"The ski hill, the tourism, the former mine, you kind of go town the list and it's check check check."

Both towns have hit that spot of being appealing to tourists without too much of a backlash from locals concerned the community will be overrun. They're large enough to support a wide variety of small businesses, but not big enough to have a Walmart.

But their paths to this point have been slightly different.

"It's always had forestry, transportation, agricultural. There's been a strong visitor economy. So it's, it's a very mixed community," said Smithers Mayor Gladys Attrill.

"And I think it's part of what people here are really proud of and really feisty about protecting."

Unlike the two remaining towns in the competition, Smithers hasn't seen a big population boom in the last 15 years. But it's long been a hub for the Bulkley Valley, and the different economic sectors have created stability.

"We've seen other communities really struggle and it's not that we haven't had ups and downs, but having a good mix of the way people make their living in a community allows us to ride things out," said Atrill.

Andrew Kurjata/CBC
Andrew Kurjata/CBC

Kimberley is one of those towns that have had ups and downs.

"When you're a one-trick pony, and you lose the pony, it's pretty devastating," said McCormick, recalling the closure of the Sullivan Mine in 2001 — which at its height employed around a quarter of Kimberley residents — and the town's economic diversification strategy.

"Thankfully, there was a fair degree of warning of the closure," he said, detailing how the area invested in the Kimberley Nature Park, the largest municipal park in B.C., and golf courses in the years beforehand to augment its ski hill.

"I thought we thought we were ready for that transition and slide into tourism. While to some degree that happened, at the end of the day it's very traumatic when you lose your major industry."

Justin McElroy/CBC News
Justin McElroy/CBC News

The winner of Smithers vs. Kimberley will go on to the championship round against Ucluelet, another town that faced economic hardship in the '90s as its resource economy changed.

Maybe it's the memories of those hardships that have pushed some of these towns to vote early and often in this competition; a chance to show pride at how they've evolved.

Or maybe it's a little more straightforward.

"I've seen newcomers land here and within a few months here they're full Smithereens," said Attrill, referring to the nickname for town residents.

"It's that magical ingredient that when you come here, you feel it, and it captures your soul. And that makes us just, really, really attached to where we live, super proud of it, and wanting to make it better."

CBC News
CBC News

Census stats

Kimberley:

  • Median age: 46.2.

  • Population growth since 2011: 22 per cent.

  • Renter households: 25.6 per cent.

  • Median total household income: $67,072.

  • BIPOC members as a percentage of community population: 7.9 per cent.

  • Road to the Elite Eight: Defeated Invermere 55-45 per cent, Rossland 51-49 per cent, Fernie 50.5-49.5 per cent, Nelson 51-49 per cent and Osoyoos 55-45 per cent.

Smithers:

  • Median age: 39.2.

  • Population growth since 2011: -0.5 per cent

  • Renter households: 31.2 per cent.

  • Median total household income: $74,610.

  • BIPOC members as a percentage of community population: 16.9 per cent.

  • Road to the Elite Eight: Defeated Dease Lake 79-21 per cent, Kitamaat Village 69-31 per cent, Atlin 65-35 per cent, Queen Charlotte 50.5-49.5 per cent and Bella Coola 54-46 per cent.

*Census numbers outside population growth are from 2016.

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