Are our small towns ready for the next economy?

Is it a trend when more US citizens move to Canada, hitting a 30 year high last year? I like to think that as we all become interconnected that it will be easier to choose where we live and how we do our work, making obligatory daily commutes a thing of the past. Much as I want that, most people don’t have that option and few employers are willing to offer it. Rob Paterson notes that some professionals are moving to PEI for the lifestyle and bringing their work with them.

I’m now in my fifth year as an independent consultant working out of a very small town. There are several others choosing to work from the home office and doing business anywhere. We’re still the minority though. The big question is whether this will become a trend and develop into the norm – people choosing where they live first. If it becomes the norm then there will be some fundamental societal and economic shifts; perhaps nine shifts.

Small towns are attractive to certain  types of people. I think that they appeal to young families as well as the newly retired or semi-retired, who want a slower pace of life. The challenge for small towns will be to offer what these folks really find important.  High-speed internet or even free municipal WiFi may be important. Access to a good passenger train service (with wireless Internet) may also be important.

There is an opportunity for small towns to position themselves as preferred locations for an Internet economy but the race may get fierce, as communities see their tax base leaving for greener pastures. The Canadian Maritime provinces need to establish the infrastructure that will attract knowledge workers and keep them here.  Companies like FatKat Animation in Miramichi are setting the example. However, our communities will also need good restaurants, multi-cultural experiences, openness to alternative lifestyles and all those other things that educated folks seek out.

It will be a big challenge to move from our not so distant agrarian economy to a knowledge economy, but if we miss the boat, we’ll end up as an economic backwater. What would attract you to move to a small town in Atlantic Canada? [by international standards, there are only small towns in Atlantic Canada]

14 Responses to “Are our small towns ready for the next economy?”

  1. Daniel Lemire

    How many people really want to live in a small town when they can afford to live in a larger one? I have within walking distance of several schools, all the stores I need (including a Walmart), people from a wide range of backgrounds, and so on. Within 5 minutes from my home, I have top-notch restaurants, culture and so on. I can also live without a car!

    Even if towns were exciting, what about being eco-friendly? The burden of having to go *everywhere* by car is not only one of the main cause for global warming (yes, small towns are bad for Earth), but it is also provably unhealthy (walking makes you fit).

    Why are small towns boring? Consider people who are unmarried, gay, from another country, have an accent, dress in an original fashion, and so on. Not welcomed in a small town because, by definition, people prefer small towns because you do not have such “people” there. So, you do away with anyone who does not fit the mold. You do away with anyone who is a bit innovative. You do away with “fun”.

    People say “small towns are better to raise a family”. Oh yeah? Few teenagers prefer small towns. Almost all teenagers want to do cool stuff, and this often happens to happen in a metropolis. So, it is really only better for the parents, not the kids.

    You will have first to meet the following challenges:

    *) build car-less small towns… as long as you depend on the automobile for your very existence, you are a threat to health and the Earth

    *) change drastically the small-town culture… it is not enough to be friendly to foreigners or strange people, you must not consider them to be foreigners or strange people in the first place…

    *) travel to a surrounding cities should not cost you $1500 in airfare, if so, your kids will feel trapped and they will seek to escape… you need something like a cheap and cool train service…

  2. Mark Berthelemy

    As someone who works from home in a small town in rural Derbyshire (UK), I would say good transport links and good (low cost) broadband connections are the essentials.

  3. Harold

    Daniel, I agree that small towns have their challenges and that the car can be the default mode of transportation. Here is my case, though:

    I walk or cycle to most places in town. We do own a car, but only have one, 8 year old vehicle. My next trip to Toronto will cost $388 return, including all taxes. I have purchased cheaper tickets in the past year.

    I agree that the culture of a small town can feel closed. One of the advantages of Sackville is that we have a university, which brings in people from outside the area.

    As I said, it will be a challenge for small towns to attract people like yourself. I’m doing my own bit to make our town more attractive 🙂

  4. Robert Paterson

    Maybe all young people should go to the big city?

    I have lived several – I love the feeling of being known that I have here on PEI. When I was younger I wanted anonymity.

    Today I want beauty rather than stuff

    Today I want a lower cost of living because I don’t want to have to work so hard.

    So long as I have the internet and an airport I ma connected

  5. Joe Horne

    I think a solution for many people will be to have two homes. My partner and I have a modest townhome in the city (Atlanta) and a farm in a rural part of Alabama (about two hours from Atlanta). Each come with their own unique set of pros and cons. In the farm county, the best restaurant is Subway (yes, that’s Subway the sandwich chain). In Atlanta, there are several wonderful places to eat, but most of the time, it’s not worth the hassle of fighting traffic to get there. Granted, many major US cities have real, workable public transportation but that is the exception, not the rule.

    At this stage in my life, I would prefer to spend perhaps two days in “the city” and spend the rest of the time on the farm. Unfortunately, I’m doing the exact opposite of that (five days in the city, two on the farm). My current job has the most draconian work from home policy of any place I have ever worked. That’s why few Gen Xers stay here (and yes, that is my generation).

    In the city, there is practically no quiet spot and very little interaction with nature. On the farm, it is frequently quiet and peaceful. Wildlife is abundant. And though I have enjoyed orchestras, plays and museums around the world, at this stage in my life, I think I appreciate non-controlled nature experiences to a walk on the greens of an outdoor sculpture garden.

    Small towns will have to adopt a lot of progressive ideas to succeed. Having a university can make a HUGE difference. Having access to natural beauty (a lake, some mountains) can also help. But ultimately, the ideology of small towns must change. Sadly, I don’t see that happening in most cases. I think Canadian small towns have a much brighter future than those in the US…But time will decide!

    Great post Harold!

  6. Dave Ferguson

    I get to play both sides of several streets here. I was born in a small Nova Scotia town, grew up in Detroit, earned my grad degree while living and working in a town of 297 (smaller than my son’s graduating class), and now live in the sprawling D.C. suburbs.

    Small town versus big city is a bit of a false dichotomy. By Harold’s tongue-in-cheek definition, Halifax is a small town, though I’d choose it over many larger places. And it’s not hard to think of metropolises that you wouldn’t want to live in.

    A smaller place can have narrower points of view, but a larger place just means it’s easier to get away from those narrower points, not that they don’t exist.

    Daniel, I have to say the notion of someone walking to Wal-Mart strikes me as curious. More seriously, not everyone wants their town (or city) to be “exciting.”

    I very much agree with Joe about the value of some institution acting as a magnet to attract new residents and new ideas (like a university, perhaps like some kinds of major employers, perhaps some nonprofit).

    And here’s Vachel Lindsay talking about (of all places) Springfield, Illinois:

    Let not our town be large — remembering
    That little Athens was the Muses’ home;
    That Oxford rules the heart of London still,
    That Florence gave the Renaissance to Rome.

  7. Dave Ferguson

    I was curious, so checked the Statistical Abstracts of the U.S. here (Excel file). Immigration from Canada to the U.S. in 2000 was 16,057; in 2005, 21,878.

    Not as sharp an increase as in the other direction, but a much higher percentage of the home country population.

  8. Dave Ferguson

    Just to make clear, I wasn’t disputing your point. It was truly curiosity.

    I suspect, with no data to back me up, that there are more ‘economic migrants’ coming south but clearly intending to return to Canada; I’m not sure it’s as true in the opposite direction.

    (Could be the bias of the Cape Breton diaspora…)

    Since I don’t “sound Canadian” if I stay away from “out” and “about,” people here who don’t realize where I was born will say the most unthinking things.

    One person, a political conservative, maintained vehemently that Canada’s Liberals are “a right-of-center party, like the American Republicans.”

    To those who yap about Canada becoming the fifty-first state, I ignore the fact that none of them are interested, then offer the notion that each province and territory would of course become a state, forming the fifty-first through sixty-third states.

    Among other things, that’d put 26 Canadians into the U. S. Senate, a fifth of the new total.

    Naturally, the 51st-ers consider my idea preposterous.

  9. Harold

    Dave, I had no feeling that you were disputing what I had said (though you are free to do so), but was trying to show that the two-way Web helps to clarify things with viewpoints and fact-checks from multiple perspectives.

    BTW, we’d be a bloody big 51st state, considering that Canada is larger than the entire USA 😉

  10. Craig Lawson

    I am looking for a small town with lots of foot traffic to open up a coffee shop. We would provide wifi and be a place for locals to meet. My planned company’s website is .
    I belive with the gas prices being so high small town living with less commuting may be a suttle lifestyle change that may tak place.

  11. john

    my parents moved to a small town when i was a teenager from la and when i got there it was a coumplete nightmare nothing to do the people are old fashoned and closed minded


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