Small Town Stories: Merritt

By Jill Sperling
October 21, 2016 - 5:47pm

MERRITT, B.C. — The City of Merritt has had some bad news recently, receiving word last month that Tolko Industries' Nicola Valley operation would cease operations in December.

As the shock of that announcement begins to wear off the community is beginning to seek new opportunities to keep its long-time residents and bring in new ones.

WATCH: Feature by CFJC Reporter Jill Sperling

The closure of Merritt's sawmill will affect more than 200 employees in a city that has long considered forestry its major industry.

"For every person that was affected, which is 203, that affects another two people in your community," said City Councillor Mike Goetz. "So you're actually looking at about 600 people that will be affected by it."

As the community of about 8,000 people braces itself for that loss, city council is trying to find a way to soften the blow.

"What we can do as a community is try and help those people and as a council help them as well," Goetz said. "The transition teams got together quite quickly, came here and met with them, so hopefully a lot of those people will be able to find something and stay in the community. It would be a shame to lose them, so hopefully they will stay."

As the city prepares to lose a major employer, a new green energy project is set to open in March, and a BC Hydro upgrade is allowing for new hotel construction.

Lalli Randhawa is the owner of one of two new hotels nearing completion. 

"My dream was to build a hotel here," Randhawa said. "I thought this is a great location to build a hotel, and when I started building I knew Merritt didn't have a good hotel. So location is one, and I had in mind the design of the hotel, what the hotel is supposed to look like. So those two things pushed me to build this one."

There is also good news in the Merritt real estate market. Local realtor John Isaac says more people are moving in than moving out. 

"We've got a couple developments that have been building, selling, people (moving) from the coast," Isaac said. "Still some people moving out, but more people coming in."

With more affordable housing and a convenient location within the province some people are choosing to move in from the Lower Mainland. 

"We've had three years running now where the sales have been about 20 per cent more than the year prior," Isaac said. "So good news, you know the power plant - good news, hydro upgrade - good news. We just hope all the good news adds up."

Enrollment is up slightly at the city's schools, which accommodate a total of 2,100 students. 

"We've seen small growth both last year and this year so we're pleased about that," said School District 58 Superintendent Stephen McNiven. 

The school district has implemented a number of unique programs in Merritt's schools - including a brand new Hockey Academy. 

Merritt Secondary School is home to a House of Honour, which serves as a space for students to learn more about First Nations culture.

"I think we're leading the province in the work that we're doing around Aboriginal education and local First Nations culture," McNiven said, "so that's a big piece of what we also are proud of here in our district."

The city has a hospital and six doctors, but currently no babies are born in the building. For that reason Councillor Mike Goetz says the city would like to implement a midwife program.

"The one fear that most of us have, the mayor and council, and pretty much everybody in this community is a young father rushing over to Kamloops at four o'clock in the morning in the middle of a snowstorm on the Coquihalla with a pregnant wife, that's what we're worried about," Goetz said. "We want to be able to actually have births in the community again."

Summer events like the Rockin' River Music Festival bring tens of thousands of people to the region, and outdoor enthusiasts keep the local Visitor's Centre busy.

Merritt's economy is shifting, but the city hopes a new focus on tourism and small business will be the key to sustainability.

Chinese-language forest tours to educate more B.C. residents on conservation