St. Stephen – Future St. Stephen started in 2016 as the result of community action by a cross section of residents who were looking to buck the trend of the shrinking demographics and loss of economic agency rural communities are facing.
These days, Future St. Stephen is in the market for a new president.
Richard Fulton, current president, is quick to head-off some of the questions people have raised about the search.
“People ask me, is this your contract renewal time, and this job just has to be posted as a token gesture,” said Fulton. Perhaps they are wondering if there is a candidate already selected, and the public search is simply for optics. The answer to both, said Fulton, “is a definite no.
“I thought I would never retire, because I’ve always enjoyed my work,” he added.
But the travel bug has bitten Fulton and his wife, and he plans to take some time-off to scratch that itch. “You have to pick a time, and I’m of that age where I want to travel, so now is the right time,” said Fulton, noting this year he will be of retirement age.
According to Fulton, Future St. Stephen has three primary responsibilities. Population growth , a rejuvenation of the downtown core, and promoting economic development in the town.
“Those are all synergistic things, said Fulton, “but the first two came from the leaders of St Stephen deciding that’s what was important for the community.”
Economic development is directly related to those goals, and so has become a strategic focus.
The hardest challenge in growing the population is convincing people who have no ties to the region they should choose St. Stephen as a place to live. In that vein, what was originally a two pronged approach to attracting new residents has now grown a third. What Fulton terms, “active retirees”, and young professionals made up the first demographics Future St. Stephen wanted to attract, but the sharp increase in available jobs and a lack of workers to fill those positions has led the organization to focus more of their efforts on attracting job seekers.
Fulton recognizes the difficulties job seekers have in finding local positions, spreading as they do largely through social media and word of mouth.
“So one of the things that we’re going to do is we’re going to create a local listing of the jobs available in this area. What we want to do is create a single St Stephen area job resource.”
The efforts at attracting active retirees are focused specifically on targeting those who have recently retired and live in urban centers, and who are tired of the stresses of city life. The pitch Future St. Stephen is making to that demographic is they should cash out their expensive city home and move to St. Stephen to take advantage of the cheaper housing and the rugged coastal beauty.
“Don’t come here to live in a retirement home,” said Fulton. “Come here to live out your retirement years doing the things that you want to do.”
Attracting active retirees seems reasonable at the outset, but some voices in Atlantic Canada are raising concerns that the shift in population from young people to older retirees is a worrying trend.
Richard Saillant, the director of the Donald J. Savoie Institute at the University of Moncton, has said one in five people in Atlantic Canada are seniors, and that by 2035 the number will have changed to one in three.
“Free universal health care…as we know it will no longer exist, because the health care spending as a percentage of GDP will be twice as high as it is right now,” said Saillant.
Saillant goes on to point out public spending on health care is already 40 per cent of the provincial budget, and doubling that amount as current workers retire will result in a drastic increase in equalization payments, which are a politically and economically unstable solution.
Though some public voices have made dire predictions, St. Stephen has managed to hang onto the optimism and momentum solidified in those early meetings amongst its citizens.
“There is a tremendous amount of positive going on in this town,” said Fulton, “and that isn’t to the credit of Future St. Stephen, it’s to the credit of the people of St. Stephen.”
Fulton points out that in the last few years, 80 local business have opened up or significantly changed their operations. Additionally, a new housing development will be breaking ground at the end of February, and real estate numbers indicate that people are moving here. Though of course, we won’t know the actual population increase until the next census is completed in 2021.
There is a sense of renewed hope and optimism in St. Stephen, and though the morbid predictions of the austerity of future decades are hard to fully collate with that reality, it is worth pointing out that the problem of an aging populace is a deep and important one that if not solved will affect not only the future of St. Stephen, but of all of Atlantic Canada.
One of the best lessons that communities have learned over the last few decades is local problems are best served by local solutions. The short history of Future St. Stephen has been one of success, and, “I’ve been trying to accurately capture that,” said Fulton, “because we’ve been approached by other communities asking ‘can we have your model’, and we say, ‘well, we don’t really have a model, though we want to be a model’.”
And so Fulton is trying to write down what the elements of that success are, because the desire to be a model, rather than boil success down to a model, acknowledges the reality of complex problems and complex solutions.
If St. Stephen is successful in its efforts to revitalize its social and economic core, then perhaps in 2035 people will hold it up as a model for how a community, though force of will and ingenuity, took control of their own future.