We must take control of our future - Keith Roulston editorial
These days when it seems that rural municipalities are becoming more and more dependent on grants from the provincial government, communities need to be creative about how they can rebuild some financial independence.
The November issue of our sister publication The Rural Voice contains a story of one small community’s ingenious solution to funding its own priorities, a story that should be of interest to rural towns and villages all across the country.
Ryan Gibson, Libro Professor of Regional Economic Development with the School
of Environmental Design and Rural Development at the University of Guelph, told the story of Cartwright, Manitoba when he spoke last month at Huron County’s Food
and Beverage Summit in Exeter. I’ve heard Gibson speak before (he was at the Rural
Talks to Rural conference in Blyth a year ago) and he often speaks about the transfer of rural wealth to cities that will happen as current rural residents pass away. He points to his own family’s situation where his parents earned their savings in a rural community. When they die, however, what money the government doesn’t get in taxes on their estate most likely will be divided between him, living in Guelph, and his sister, also no longer living in the community in which she grew up. Rural communities need to find a way of keeping some of that money to help build the community in the future, I’ve heard him say.
But until I read Lisa B. Pot’s Rural Voice article, I’d never heard about a successful example of making this happen. Cartwright, a village of 500 people, is the proof it can work.
The village set up a Benevolent Society and asked people: “Where would you like your money to go on your death? Your local street or Ottawa?” I’m guessing the Benevolent Society is a registered non-profit charitable corporation which means that legacies left to it avoid money being siphoned off to the senior governments.
Whatever the case, Cartwright’s Benevolent Society worked. Over the years a fund of $7.9 million was amassed, which, when invested, brought a steady return of $300,000 a year to be spent in the village. First, every pothole on every street was repaired but there was money left over. Next every sports team was given new jerseys. Still there was money left over. Eventually it was decided to give every student $10,000 on graduation to be used to further their education, start up a business or just travel.
“Rural communities have wealth,” Gibson said. “It’s a matter of how to collect it and use it.”
I’m hoping that someone like Gibson may be putting together a template that communities can follow in order to create a local fund like Cartwright’s. No doubt something that worked in Manitoba has to be rejigged to meet the laws in Ontario or other provinces but this seems like a workable solution to keeping at least some of the wealth generated in rural areas in rural communities. A similar $7.9 million fund requires only 79 people to leave $100,000 each from their estates for community betterment. For many people in these days of inflated real estate prices (particularly farm prices) that amount would still leave a substantial inheritance for their children.
Making use of legacies, such as Cartwright’s Benevolent Society does, is a rural resource I hadn’t considered before.
I’ve always thought there must be some way we could invest rural residents’ retirement savings and other investments to build rural areas instead of cities and still earn a decent rate of return. More than 20 years ago I sat on a committee with the Huron Business Development Centre in Seaforth to set up
a community investment fund, but unfortunately a change in government shut down the plan just as it was about to seek local investors.
Rural areas have long been known for their self-sufficiency but we’ve been losing that part of our culture. We’ve turned over more and more community functions to municipal and provincial governments. Governments set standards and rules that often are too expensive for the smaller populations of rural areas to afford. Government priorities change and funding for programs can be cut. Rural municipalities have been starved for provincial transfer payments in recent years.
We need to rediscover our rural self-sufficiency and our rural ingenuity. As Gibson said we need to be bold, unapologetic leaders who develop our own vibrant future. Some of this will come from re-envisioning our local assets, whether that be underused community buildings or landmarks that can become tourist attractions that can help bring customers to local businesses.
One of these assets is the money that is in our communities that could improve these communities if we find a way to put it to work.