Census shows disappointing data for Exploits region
The 2011 Canadian census was released last week, and reporters across the province and country latched on to scrutinize how their communities stacked up against others in terms of population growth.
It was no surprise to anyone that west was best for an expanding population - available, high paying jobs are a heck of an enticer.
Newfoundland and Labrador also had an, albeit small, bit of positive news; for the first time since 1986 the population of the province increased, overall by a measly 1.8 per cent from 2006-2011, but an increase nonetheless.
In our little corner of the province, it hasn't been easy to bring in newcomers. In 2008, the Abitibi Bowater pulp and paper mill in Grand Falls-Windsor shut its doors, leaving hundreds out of work.
Even though that dealt quite a blow to the community, the census data released last week reports a 167-person growth since 2006, which means despite losing its largest employer for years, people are still moving to Grand Falls-Windsor. This is good. If a town isn't growing, it's dying.
And representatives from the Town have not been shy in pointing it out.
"Last year there were 54 housing units and this year we're up to 114. In 2009, we had about $7 million in commercial development permits and this year we're up to $21.9 million. Both our commercial and our resident, that's permits that have been issued, we're up to $42.4 million so far. There are I think roughly about $3 million more residential that is in review," Mayor Al Hawkins said in a 2010 interview. This is just one of many examples where the Town has espoused this alleged great amount of expansion taking place in Grand Falls-Windsor.
The Town even hired a new town planner in 2011 to deal with all this ‘growth.'
Unfortunately, there's a fine line between staying positive and sticking your head in the sand.
Grand Falls-Windsor is a town without direction, no longer a mill town, for a while advertising itself as a retirement community, a service centre, ‘perfectly centred,' council has tried to put it in a myriad of costumes over the past few years, but none of them seem to fit. It's a bit like a teenage girl who hasn't discovered who she is yet.
Gander is a town of a similar size, just east down the Trans-Canada Highway about 100 kms. In the 2006-2011 period, the town of Gander increased its population by 1,103 residents; that's a growth of 11 per cent, compared to Grand Falls-Windsor's 1.2 per cent growth for the same time period.
Gander has become the service centre of central Newfoundland, people may come to Grand Falls-Windsor for some basic items throughout the week, but anyone within a 200 km radius who has any serious shopping to do is going to go to Gander, or maybe even Corner Brook.
Grand Falls-Windsor has found itself between a rock and a hard place; smack in the middle of two great service districts.
And those towns that are just close enough to Grand Falls-Windsor to use it frequently as a service community - Bishop's Falls, Badger, Buchans, Botwood - have all experienced fairly significant population losses since 2006, according to census data.
This doesn't bode well for Grand Falls-Windsor - when towns start to boom the surrounding communities tend to follow suit. Appleton, for example, a town close to Gander, has increased by nearly 7 per cent. Likewise, Glenwood and Glovertown, two of Gander's surrounding communities, have also increased in population.
The bottom line is yes, Grand Falls-Windsor has grown in spite of having it's heart ripped out in 2008, but at the same time, it's not exactly a metropolitan area either.
Gander wasn't always a booming service centre, but knowing its airport alone couldn't realize the growth it needed, it adapted, and adapted well.
Perhaps the service center route isn't the best for Grand Falls-Windsor, but with the lowest vacancy rates in the province, a lack of jobs luring young professionals, and a fraction of the amenities and stores offered by other towns of a similar size, the people responsible for planning the growth of Grand Falls-Windsor are going to have to figure out how to swim soon, or else our community will start sinking.