Coming, coming, ready or not!

During the early history of Manitoba towns, development decisions were really quite simple. Build it and they will come was the method of the day. That was self-evident. Wave after wave of settlers were filling the vacant land and towns sprang up about every 10 miles along the railway tracks. The demand for free farmland, the need for the railroad to develop markets and the immigration to western Canada overwhelmed the system. Farms were developed, towns grew, industries sprang up, it was a heady time.
Then some very basic changes took place. The Panama Canal was completed in 1914 and western Canada, and especially Winnipeg, took a huge drop in freight traffic. Crop production topped out as the farmers located on marginal land struggled even more than those on the better land. WWI came along and took a lot of people away, many who never returned. The 1920s showed some more growth and stability but that faded in the 1930s. Faded and, in some cases, fizzled completely. WWII provided a halt in the decline and the 1950s showed a bit of growth or at least a slowing of the decline
But all that faltering growth started to taper off even more severely in the 1960s. Proof of that is that Neepawa’s population basically stayed at 3200 from 1948 until 2008. That’s 60 years of perceived steadiness, albeit surrounded by a huge decline in the population of the surrounding areas. Some towns held on, some disappeared or almost disappeared. Certainly schools, grain elevators, stores and other services disappeared.
The remaining service centre towns became very good at hanging on. In fact hanging on became a tradition, a well worn practice to achieve survival.
But all that has changed. Towns faced with an aging population, an aging infrastructure, an aging housing inventory and an aging commercial building inventory are now faced with a growth spurt. 
It may be a handful of families in a town of 400 people. It may be 100s of new people in a town like Neepawa. The percentage effect is similar and the challenges are similar in most Manitoba towns today
Even if town populations weren’t increasing, the above named three challenges of aging population, infrastructure, housing and commercial buildings would still be there. The difference is that without immigration, be it from other parts of Canada or from overseas, we would be facing those challenges in the 1960s way, that is retreat, shrink and dig in, preparing for the next shrinkage.
Today we are much better off as we can face the four challenges with assistance from a true population increase. Our towns are not increasing in population or holding their own like they did in the 50s and 60s because of a migration from other small towns or from the farms. This time it’s a true population increase for the whole area.
We are not accustomed to planning for real growth. We need to plan for growth and we need to do it quickly. If we do it well, our communities will be well positioned for the future. It has to be sustainable and affordable growth.
We need renewed and new water and sewer systems, new and renewed roads and we need new and renewed housing.
The changes are upon us already. Just like the childhood cry in a hide-and-seek game, “Coming, coming, ready or not!”
We need to gather together all our resources, municipal, provincial and federal, to  face these growth challenges. The biggest resource is the ideas, the innovations of the people. Gathering the ideas and innovations and encouraging people to express and implement those good ideas must not be forgotten as the challenges are being met.

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