Well, that was embarrassing.
The government put 39 lots on Whistle Bend’s Iskoot Crescent up for auction and received precisely zero bids.
Cue the jokes about government planners and sandstorms swirling across the treeless Whistle Bend steppe.
I’m sure that houses will be built on Iskoot Crescent some day. The trees will grow back. On the latter front, I recommend the Siberian Larch. It grows faster than Yukon evergreens and who wouldn’t want their 360-degree view of the Yukon forest spiced up with an exotic Russian taiga look in the front yard?
Having a Russian tree would also be a subtle tip of the hat to the central planners who brought us Whistle Bend.
Unregulated capitalism brings boom then bust, they say, while central planning does the reverse.
Iskoot Crescent isn’t the worrying problem. It’s good to have a few hundred lots in a land bank for people to buy when the population grows again. It’s how they do it in Texas (although in Texas they try harder not to have new lots cost over $115,000).
The real problem is that the Iskoot auction is just one of the many signs that our economy and population are not growing like we would hope.
According to the latest doom-laden report from the Yukon Bureau of Statistics, the population grew from December 2013 to December 2014 in only nine of the 17 communities it reviews. Whitehorse grew during the period, as did the Yukon population overall, though the fourth quarter saw a net outflow of nearly 200 people (mostly to B.C. and Alberta).
As of May 2015, there were 600 fewer jobs (seasonally adjusted) than during 2014’s high point.
The vacancy rate in Whitehorse has more than doubled since mid-2013.
The charts for both the number of residential real estate transactions and the average price show a weakening trend since 2011.
Residential and private commercial building permits were both down sharply this April compared to a year previously.
The news is not all bad. More U.S. and international visitors crossed the border this April than a year before. Interest rates are lower. Restaurant and “drinking places” revenues are trending up. Average weekly earnings including overtime were $1,051 in March compared to $1,030 a year before, which beat inflation. And enough people moved away that, despite the fall in jobs, our unemployment rate remained (slightly) below the Canadian average.
Nonetheless, it makes me wonder if we should start doing something now to attract more people to the Yukon.
Traditionally, we try to lure mining investment in the hope that people and tax revenues will come along.
Given the state of the mining industry, perhaps it is time to cut out the middleman and go straight for luring people here.
Despite our grumbles about how hard it is to find a campsite at Kusawa on the long weekend, a growing population has lots of benefits. It brings more transfer payment dollars and also gives us a bigger pool of people to sustain community groups and facilities.
The N.W.T. announced a plan in 2014 to lure 2,000 people to their territory over five years.
Despite the underperformance of our trees relative to their Russian competitors, the Yukon has a lot going for it. In addition to being a great overall place to live, we have specific lures compared to plenty of other places in Canada.
Our income taxes are low compared to most provinces, and were recently lowered further. Our health-care system is very accessible compared to many provinces, and fees for things like homecare and continuing care are a fraction of what most provinces charge. We don’t have a dividend like Alaska, but the Yukon grant is very attractive for parents of teenagers. The sporting opportunities for youngsters are impressive, with national-level coaching in several sports and opportunities like the Arctic Winter Games.
Despite Riverdale Rush Minute, traffic here doesn’t even register on the Toronto scale. You can spend your commuting time on your skis or mountain bike.
The list goes on. Even our weather seems to be getting better.
On the other hand, I’ve never heard anyone say they moved to the Yukon because of our education system, Internet connectivity or electricity prices. But the government is working on those things, and might even make progress before Iskoot Crescent’s Siberian Larches grow up.
Maybe the Yukon government shouldn’t just be spending money on tourism marketing to get people to visit. Perhaps there should be more ads with people sitting in the Games Centre hot tub or enjoying excellent health care while waving their tax refunds.
One thing that does need to get fixed is the cost of land here. It’s good we have surplus lots in the land bank. It is bad, however, that just the lots cost more than an entire house did 20 years ago. We’ve all had a barbecue ruined by someone mentioning how they bought an entire house in Takhini for less than $100,000 in the 1990s.
Maybe the central planners who manage our land bank should try an innovative technique that private companies use to get rid of excess inventory. It’s called a “sale.”
In effect, we would be spending some of our transfer payment developing land to pass on cheaply to people.
And forget about those ads I mentioned above. Cheap land would be its own advertisement.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won this year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith