those wily kamloopians

Kamloops isn't on anyone's bucket list. On survey questions like, "Where do you plan to vacation within the next three years?" Canada's 37th-largest city likely scores around zero per cent.

Kamloops isn’t on anyone’s bucket list. On survey questions like, “Where do you plan to vacation within the next three years?” Canada’s 37th-largest city likely scores around zero per cent.

Yet I find myself in Kamloops for a week, spending $139 a day (plus hotel tax) at the Accent Inn, ordering dinner off the “Celebrate BC” menu at White Spot and watching my children buy “gangsta” hats they don’t need at the Aberdeen Mall.

How did the wily Kamloopians turn me and my family into a mini-economic development project?

It’s a good question. When I first visited Kamloops 20 years ago, the town literally stank of failure.

The sulphurous stench of the pulp mill reminded everyone how dependent the town was on the up-but-mostly-down BC forestry industry. The 19th-century railway was another major economic driver. They talked about training for the future at the community college, but many mocked the idea by making a thumb-to-forehead, fingers outspread antler sign when saying “Cariboo College.”

Kamloops’ successful economic development strategy makes for an interesting case study.

The first thing that strikes you is the town has somehow defined a strategy, got many different agencies and levels of government working together and has sustained its direction consistently for many years.

You can tell this immediately because the town doesn’t have a generic Anywhereville slogan like “Exceeding Expectations” or “Larger than Life.” It is “Kamloops: Tournament Capital of Canada.”

The strategy is clearly defined and everyone knows it. It is to host every tournament they can shoehorn into the calendar. In 2009, Kamloops hosted more than 100 tournaments and events.

In recent years they have had the Western Canada Summer Games, CCAA Golf Nationals, World Masters Athletics, National Basketball Championships, IFH World Junior Hockey, Canadian Gymnastics Nationals, and so on.

It is easy to announce a strategy. Kamloops, however, has done a few clever things to make it real.

First of all, the numbers add up for their tournament strategy. There are hundreds of outfits that organize tournaments and the number keeps growing every year as new sports go mainstream. You can put concentric circles on a map from Kamloops and identify the size of the potential market within a four-hour drive (regional competitions) or a two-hour flight (Pacific Northwest and Western Canada).

Then there are the national competitions.

The number of potential events, participants and hangers-on is huge. If you multiply it by the daily spending of a typical tournament participant you get an impressive boost to the local economy. So this is a strategy that, if successful, will clearly move the needle economically.

Secondly, Kamloops has identified what it needs to attract these events: good facilities.

Since it hosted the Canada Games in 1993, the town has been steadily investing in new facilities to appeal to ever more events. It claims to have $50 million in new and renovated facilities.

It has a new Bike Ranch, a canoe and kayak facility, a giant skateboard park (located, ironically, beside the lawn bowling facility) and is planning a dozen ball parks.

It also has lots of things for visitors to do after they get eliminated from their tournament, or if the family tires of watching junior curl, shotput or play tennis. There is a wildlife preserve with bear cubs (at the moment) and rattlesnakes, lots of beaches and shopping.

Thompson Rivers University plays an important role in the strategy.

It is a job-creating hub in its own right. It is the largest employer in town and attracts around 10,000 students. It also provides sports facilities and residences for big events like the Western Canada Summer Games.

All of this requires co-ordination among many layers of government and their many agencies. There is municipal funding to market the tournaments, federal infrastructure funding, provincial university and infrastructure budgets and so on. Tournament visitors are showered with brochures, handouts and website addresses to learn about how they can spend more money in Kamloops.

The big electronic billboards outside Thompson Rivers University’s impressive new Hillside Stadium and Fieldhouse flash the Kamloops tourism website at visitors all through the event.

And the provincial government allows municipalities to levy a hotel tax to pay for these activities (although it is unclear how this will be adapted if BC keeps the HST).

It is easy to see how a clear strategy like this can be very helpful in making municipal and university decisions.

If considering funding a program or new building, it is easy to think through if it helps build the tournament business or not. Furthermore, it is easy to track whether the strategy is successful or not. All you have to do at the end of the year is add up the number of events and visitors.

It would be silly to suggest Whitehorse try to compete with Kamloops to be Canada’s tournament capital (not to mention unkind to my recent hosts).

But it wouldn’t hurt us to have a clearer economic development strategy with clear objectives, backed up by some numbers to both estimate the economic impact and track our success in achieving it.

The current 2010/11 Economic Development Action Plan you find on Whitehorse’s website has 16 “strategic topics,” ranging from rebranding the city to better parking to graffiti management.

All worthy initiatives, but the experience of Kamloops suggests we should shoot for a more focused plan with a bigger vision, longer time horizon and more tangible actions.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.