Chilliwack MLA John Les is enthusiastic about Lillooet’s future economic potential, but says he can’t offer specific suggestions – or commitments - to help the community in key areas such as transportation.
Les was in town June 27 for a public meeting organized by the Lillooet and District Chamber of Commerce. After the morning public meeting at the REC Centre, he met with District of Lillooet Council.
The longtime Chilliwack mayor and MLA extolled Lillooet’s potential as an agricultural centre.
“You’ve got water – lots of it – flowing down the muddy Fraser and when you throw water on this land, it grows stuff,” said Les. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity here. I think the Lillooet area can become one of the gardens of British Columbia.”
He suggested large-scale agriculture operations here could supply the Lower Mainland and meet the needs of the baby boomer market, which wants “good food, not necessarily from California or Mexico, but BC-grown. That’s what they love, particularly if there’s some kind of guarantee associated with it that it hasn’t been sprayed a lot with herbicide. You can successfully grow that way here in a dry climate.”
Les continued, “If someone really took hold of that, I am sure Lillooet and area could become British Columbia’s vegetable garden.”
He praised the efforts of Fort Berens Estate Winery owners Heleen Pannekoek and Rolf deBruin, explaining, “Somebody had an idea and they’re running with it. That’s what it ultimately takes – individuals conceiving an idea, taking the initiative and moving forward. There were lots of people who said you couldn’t grow grapes in Lillooet, but you can. You just have to pick the right ones.”
Les touched briefly on the local political climate, urging citizens to work together and “pull in the same direction.
“You’ve got too much at stake to be politicking all the time,” he advised. “When the elections are done, you carry on until the next election and then you have your big fight and then you carry on again.”
During a question-and-answer session, questioners zeroed in on the lack of any form of public transportation to move people and products to and from Lillooet.
“Maybe you’re going to say it’s a private sector matter and maybe it is, but it’s a huge challenge we face here, in terms of bringing people in, getting people out, making our businesses accessible, shipping our produce,” said Sarah Chandler.
“I don’t know what the solution is for Lillooet, I just don’t know,” Les replied. “Relying on the public sector to provide the solution is usually very expensive and quite often not very satisfying, anyway.”
John Willey suggested the Liberals, who once touted rural and interior BC as the “heartland,” are focused on the Lower Mainland and seem to have turned their backs on small communities such as Lillooet. “The provincial government, it seems is not reinvesting in the heartland and should be more appreciative of what we are providing,” said Willey.
Bea Galliazzo criticized the decision to abandon appurtenancy in the forest industry. When they happened, timber logged here no longer had to be processed where it was harvested and the timber – and jobs – could be shipped to other communities.
“Why should our product go somewhere else? Why should we be suffering? We have no economy, no jobs and my children have to go out of town to find work somewhere else,” she told Les. “The communities you’re taking resources from should be the ones to benefit.”
“I don’t have a complete answer for that, other than to say there’s a bi-partisan committee of the legislature, chaired by John Rustad from Nechako-Lakes, and they’re looking at that issue of future log supply,” Les replied.
Asked by Kate Maxon if grants are available to establish an ESL school here, Les said money was not an obstacle. “It’s not so much grants you’re looking for; it’s being in contact with people who want to undertake those kinds of initiatives. There’s no lack of money in the private sector – the Chinese private sector in particular. If they want to locate an ESL school somewhere, they’ll do it.”
“The challenge there is – they would probably want to put it in Richmond where there is a significant Chinese community. You run into those kinds of issues, which are much more of a barrier than the financial aspect.”
Les suggested “sometimes the simplest little initiative” can open doors to economic opportunity. When he was Chilliwack’s mayor, he said the city erected a sign along the freeway saying, “If you’re interested in opening a business, phone the mayor.” Les said there are still many people around BC who tell him, “Hey, you’re the guy who had the sign.”
“It wasn’t as if the phone was ringing off my desk every day, but it presented an attitude that if you wanted to come and talk to somebody about opening a new business, Chilliwack’s the place,” said Les. “And then, of course, you followed up with real action.”
Les, who is the parliamentary secretary to Premier Christy Clark, began the meeting by highlighting the achievements of the provincial Liberals. He said they include the creation of 57,000 new jobs in the last 12 months, new opportunities in the mining and liquefied natural gas industries and investment in port infrastructure in Prince Rupert and other highway and airport infrastructure. He also said the Liberals will present a balanced budget next February.