How Nelson Can Build a Resilient, Green Economy for the 21st Century

Photo by David Wadds

Hall Mines Smelter | Photo by David Wadds

In just over 100 years, Nelson has seen our mining and forestry industries virtually disappear and our government jobs evaporate. We’ve lost not one, but TWO universities (which has to be some kind of record). And we’ve seen the officially unrecognized — but still crucial — marijuana industry fade to a shadow of its former self as the U.S. moves toward pot legalization.

And yet so far Nelson has proven to be incredibly resilient. We have roughly 1300 business licenses issued. Real estate is a concern, not because prices are dropping but because they’re so high. Our downtown is super healthy with only a few empty store fronts, (none of which remain empty for long). And unlike most rural communities, we are growing, not shrinking.

No small part of this is because Nelson has made some smart decisions over the past few decades — decisions that have helped ensure we are well positioned to take advantage of our natural, architectural, and cultural attributes, and pivot as the global economy and market forces change the way we do business in Nelson.

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t facing huge economic challenges. Our median household income is dismally low. When I was working on my affordable housing post, I figured it at somewhere between $44,000 and $51,000, which is lower than the provincial average. And we have nearly double the provincial average of people on income assistance. So our lovely streets conceal no small amount of poverty.

Compounding the problem:

  • We are far from large urban centres.
  • We are not located on major transportation corridors.
  • The cost of real estate is high.
  • Our airport is unreliable six months of the year.

All of these create immense challenges for attracting most types of industry, especially in an economy in which most industries are already struggling to evolve in a rapidly changing world. Most predictions suggest that the pace of technological change is speeding up and that the next twenty years will bring significant changes, which could result in the automation of up to 47% of today’s jobs. So it’s probably safe to say that “the good old days” of industry are not coming back.

Those same people making these predictions say the economies that will succeed will be those that value creativity, are swift to adopt new technologies, and are green.

We here in Nelson are well positioned to be prepared for these coming changes, but we need to step things up. If I’m elected to council on November 15, here’s some ideas I’d like to explore.

Buy Local

Let’s start with a renewed focus on keeping more money in our local economy. We need to go beyond informing the public of the benefits of spending locally. We must work with local businesses to help them improve services and seek new ways to meet consumer needs so that people feel less inclined to travel to Spokane or shop online. Likewise, we want to encourage and support entrepreneurs who develop unique locally owned and operated businesses that enhance Nelson’s character, rather than seek out franchise opportunities that reduce us to carbon copies of communities across North America.

How can we do this? The City and the Chamber of Commerce can work together through the Nelson & Area Economic Development Partnership to bring in speakers, hold community forums, use the latest tools to gauge the actual needs of the public, and host a conference on how local businesses can compete with online business.

Support Art and Culture

Arts are a major economic driver for this community. According to a 2003 study commissioned by the Nelson and Area Economic Development Corporation, the gross impact of arts and heritage is estimated to be more than $198 million. The study goes further to note that every time we lose one job we lose in the arts, we then lose another ten jobs that are indirectly supported by the arts. These numbers might be hard to believe, but when you consider that nearly every single article written about Nelson focuses heavily on the creative, quirky culture of our community, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Not only does Nelson’s art and culture scene help attract visitors, it helps attract people who want to live in a place that values creativity. Considering the importance of creativity in the emerging economy, we are wise to keep it healthy. For a detailed breakdown on how we can help that happen, please check out my answers to BC Alliance for Arts and Culture.

Grow Our Visitor Economy

Nelson’s visitor economy is a small but important part of our local economy. The influx of visitors not only brings dollars to our community, these visitors also support many businesses that help give this remote community of ours such an urban feel.

So how do we help grow tourism? And how do we do it in a way that doesn’t change Nelson’s authentic, non-touristy vibe? Part of this is all about getting the message out. Nelson Kootenay Lake Tourism already does a great job of this, but they could use some more support. (Full disclosure, I’ve worked with these folks a bit, so I’ve had an opportunity to see what they’re doing on a shoestring budget). And part of this is working to better our amenities, such as parks and trails. This will mean working more closely with the RDCK and involving all of the stakeholders who have worked for years to develop these amenities.

Get the Most Out of our Broadband Initiative

Nelson’s broadband initiative has great potential for economic development in our community. But we currently have few businesses downtown capable of exploiting it to its full potential. In fact, most local businesses are probably well served by a basic business internet package. Further, the 1000 megabyte per second speeds it offers will only be cutting edge for a few years. If we want to capitalize on the boost it can give us, we have to act now.

I would like to investigate creating something called a “startup incubator” to help jumpstart Nelson as a technology hub. Startup incubators usually provide promising new companies a place to work, as well as business mentoring and a small investment to get them off the ground, in exchange for equity and/or the opportunity to help build new locally based businesses. Ideally this would involve a partnership between the City of Nelson, Chamber of Commerce, Community Futures and the Columbia Basin Trust, to name but a few of the organizations that need to be involved.

Nelson already has many of the qualities that techies and small startups would find compelling for a home base. And we have a vacant floor in the White Building, which is also home to the broadband service. It’s the perfect location for an incubator. The beauty of developing a tech economy is that we don’t have to chop anything down, dig anything up, or burn through loads of oil to transport raw materials or finished products anywhere.

Grow Our Community of Remote Workers

I would love to see the stats on how many people work remotely while living in Nelson. Remote workers live here, but work someplace else, usually online. I’ve randomly met loads of remote workers at the beach, market, and trail. I’m one myself, as is my wife. I work for companies based in Victoria and San Francisco. My wife works for a company based in Tel Aviv. In the coming decade, more people will chose to work like this as the digital economy grows.

Remote workers are good for Nelson, because they help create a resilient, decentralized workforce that is less likely to be taken out by recession, as can happen when a large local employer closes its doors. Because remote workers are moving to a place solely for its quality of life, they tend to invest heavily in keeping that place healthy. They buy local and get involved with the community.

So how can we attract these kinds of workers? Better yet, how can we help turn more Nelsonites into remote workers so that they may continue to live here, but take advantage of employment opportunities elsewhere?

The effort to attract these kinds of workers goes hand-in hand with developing our tech economy, so anything we do for that will help raise our profile for remote workers. Likewise, tourism efforts will also help boost this economy as will the nurturing of affordable/flexible co-work spaces. But we can also investigate attracting more conferences, and perhaps launch one or two of our own to help foster a local remote workforce.

Bring a University Back to Nelson

This is just a good idea for so many reasons. Kids get to stay in town if they want. Parents can save on the exorbitant costs of sending their kids to school elsewhere. Plus a campus will provide both direct and indirect employment opportunities. I’ve written about why it makes sense to renew our efforts and how we might do that here.


Nelson has too many people relying on income assistance and a low median income. But considering the number of industries that have disappeared in this community, we have proven to be remarkably resilient.

We are well positioned to be prepared for the massive changes coming to the global economy, but we have to act now.

If elected on November 15, here’s what are the ideas I would like to explore:

  • Launch a new and improved buy local campaign.
  • Support arts and culture because they are what make Nelson unique among small rural communities.
  • Get the most out of our broadband initiative by launching a startup incubator.
  • Grow our community of remote workers.
  • Bring a university back to Nelson.

3 thoughts on “How Nelson Can Build a Resilient, Green Economy for the 21st Century

  1. Hi, I just wanted to say that in comparison to many other places in desirable locations, Nelson’s real estate is not that high. It is high in comparison to our average annual income, which is lower. However, when people move here, they must know what real estate costs and accept it, and not move here and then complain afterwards. I also know of many people who move here in their twenties and early thirties and want to move into a house like what they grew up in, and that is simply not possible for most people in North America. There are some nice, small houses/trailers/half duplexes in the area for under $250K, and two people working with an income of $40K can save up over a few years for a down payment and buy something modest. It’s all about priorities. Don’t take the Mexican vacation and put that towards a down payment. Keep the car a few more years. One bottle of wine per week, not two. Make coffee at home. It’s not easy but it can be done….just thoughts….


    • I just go by the formula for calculating housing affordability. According to this, Nelson is pretty high, which causes all sorts of challenges. So it isn’t about people having unrealistic expectations. It’s about being able to make ends meet. And it’s even about employers being able to retain people. I’ve heard stories of employers cycling through employees because they can’t afford to pay them what they need to live here.

      So it’s not just about people being frivolous.


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