Thriving – sustainably – in the long term

by Theresa Peluso

Part 4:  Synchronizing the local economy with our natural and social capital

In Part 3, I compared Mississippi Mills’ environmental performance with that of Aurora.  In this column, I have taken economic analyses from other sources with a view to how our municipality could make use of some of the recommendations.

People frequently dismiss all talk of protecting the environment as unrealistic. And, of course, no one wants higher taxes. But perhaps we see taxes through a filtered lens.  When we’re sitting in our cars, stuck in traffic, we expect our municipality, county or province to spend our taxes to add extra lanes or roads to speed up our journey.

(By the way, it has been shown that doing this just leads to more people using their cars and more traffic jams down the road – an endless loop.)

But what if we saw alternatives to cars as an option?  A portion of the money used to widen the roads could be used on public transit, which would take cars off the roads and eliminate the need to widen them, with money left over to put back in our pockets.

Each family would then need fewer vehicles to purchase and maintain,  a significant reduction in their annual household budget.

One resource I came across suggests price incentives to encourage urban sustainability.  More information on this can be found on the website (the title of this resource is Sustainability Alignment Manual: Using Market-Based Instruments to Accelerate Sustainability Progress at the Local Level).  Here are some possible price incentives in the context of our municipality.

Almonte residents all pay an annual base charge for water and sewer charges of about $600 and a consumption rate of $11.17 per 1,000 gallons of water.  Perhaps if the consumption rate was pro-rated so that the first 500 gallons were cheapest, with every additional 500 gallons costing slightly more, users would be more careful with their water usage.

This, in turn, would gear the system more to user-pay, and reduce pressure on the current water and sewer infrastructure, thereby saving money for us taxpayers in the long run.  With garbage, the municipality already has a user-pay system, allowing one free bag per week, and requiring $2 bag tags for additional garbage.

The Sustainability Alignment Manual provides more examples of activities that might be discouraged with an appropriate user-pay system:

Discouraging  engine idling, perhaps by adding an extra charge to food bought at a drive-through at the pick-up window, or offering a discount to people who pick up their food at the counter inside the fast-food restaurant;

Reducing the use of disposable containers, boxes and bags by charging a fee;

Providing subsidies and incentives for people who carpool, use public transit, own Hybrid/EV vehicles, use rainbarrels, operate recycling or water-source protection programs; and

Giving tax rebates to people who operate organic farms and/or who use bio-solids and other forms of renewable energy, who build bioswales (a gently sloped drainage course filled with vegetation, compost and/or riprap), and who plant and maintain trees on their property.

Another issue related to economics is making our towns, Pakenham and Almonte, a place where everyone feels comfortable shopping on the main streets for their basic needs, not just for gifts and specialty items.

To be the real heart of a community, a town needs to have something for everyone.  To our credit, we have restaurants, handicraft stores, and second-hand stores in both towns that cater to a variety of tastes and income levels, but clothing stores like Stedman’s have closed down, forcing residents to go out of town to spend their money.

A Millstone article published last summer by a local resident, David Ashelman, an economics and social policy specialist, explained how most Mississippi Mills residents lack the financial resources to shop locally.

Over one-quarter of households in town require housing assistance, and just under one-quarter make less than 57 percent of the Canadian median income for their household size. Over 40 percent of the town’s population have no post-secondary education.

In Dr. Ashelman’s words, “Mississippi Mills is a market desert, with no means for the overwhelming number of families with limited income to buy the basics needed for their families….They are simply not able to engage in normal market economic activity of society.” (Open Letter to Mayor and Council Concerning the Mississippi Mills Economic Plan, June 6, 2014)

Dr. Ashelman estimates that because so many people, including people with average incomes, are unable to meet their basic needs here, millions of dollars are spent elsewhere, thereby depriving the municipality of the revenue that would accrue.  He suggests that the municipality’s strategic economic plan should consider expanding health care services from the current 12 percent, and should encourage colleges and universities to open satellite campuses here to make it easier for residents of all ages (including young adults who often move to larger towns) to upgrade their skills.

In addition, attracting businesses that provide basic goods and services would keep more economic activity here.  The concern, though, would be to control retail development to prevent urban sprawl, and also to discourage big-box stores that could end up depleting the vitality of our town centres and generating excessive traffic.  Perhaps the Sears depot currently located on Highway 29 at the farm supplies and garden centre just outside Almonte could be relocated in one of our towns for greater accessibility.

For now, people will probably continue to drive to the big-box stores in Carleton Place for what they can’t find in Mississippi Mills, or shop in Ottawa on their way home from work.

Some of Dr. Ashelman’s suggestions, such as creating local employment in the areas of education and health services, would help reduce the need to commute to Ottawa, and make our community more self-sufficient.

The Champlain Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) (which covers five counties in Eastern Ontario, including Lanark) plans, coordinates and funds health services of all kinds (hospitals, home care, mental health, community support services, community health services, and long-term-care homes).  This LHIN could perhaps help to identify special health service centres in our community.  For example, Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital currently attracts many Ottawa residents in need of orthopedic surgery because of its much shorter wait times.

Our Almonte hospital, with its high performance ratings, could very well provide a nucleus for certain types of care.  Dr. Ashelman’s idea of encouraging colleges and universities to open satellite campuses here has a lot of potential here.  Many residents seeking to upgrade their skills could benefit from courses close to home.

Also, because of the exceptionally high percentage of artists, artisans, tradespeople, and musicians who reside in Mississippi Mills, we could perhaps look at setting up a year-round arts facility, similar to Haliburton School of the Arts.  This could be a more permanent venue that would build on the popularity we’ve achieved with our numerous music, performance and artistic festivals, craft fairs, and art studio tours.

An arts-focused school was successfully implemented in the past in Mississippi Mills over several summers, but fell by the wayside because there wasn’t enough of a long-term commitment to organizing and supporting it financially.

Our abundance of trees, fertile soil, nature parks, and waterways can also be used to promote sustainable economic development.  We could add to early spring and late fall attractions, such as our maple sugar and Christmas tree farm businesses, by doing more to promote farmers’ markets, farm vacations, and wildlife watching.

By investing in more nature parks and protecting natural areas, we increase the quality of life of our residents by improving air and water quality, enabling more resilience in the face of more frequent extreme weather events, providing more recreational activities for residents and visitors (such as hiking, cycling, skiing, snowshoeing, swimming, canoeing and kayaking), reducing infrastructure costs for clean water, stormwater drainage, etc., and safeguarding habitat for wildlife, including keystone species.

In fact, here is an interesting excerpt from a report published about 15 years ago by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, titled Wildlife Watching:  Untapped Economic Boost for Rural Communities (

One of Washington’s most valuable natural resources — our native fish and wildlife — is often overlooked when it comes to assessing an area’s economic health. Leaders from Washington’s rural areas may want to look again, however.

Washington’s rich, diverse wildlife populations occur mostly in rural areas where people love to visit and enjoy watching wildlife. Surprisingly, these visits have a profound impact on rural economies.

Over $1.7 billion is spent annually in Washington on wildlife-watching activities, mostly in rural areas. This is money spent locally on food, lodging, transportation and equipment. Wildlife-watching activities support more than 21,000 jobs…. Wildlife watching yields $426.9 million in job income and generates $56.9 million in state and $67.4 million in federal tax revenues each year.

…Washington’s wildlife resources contribute to the social, economic, and cultural qualities of the state and its communities.…. Fueling the tremendous growth in wildlife watching activities is the aging of the “Baby Boom” generation. As baby-boomers approach middle-age, their interest in outdoor activities changes to softer activities that can be combined with other travel pursuits.

With so many delicate landscapes under threat, it makes sense for those communities to turn to ecotourism, which allows them to bring in tourists under controlled conditions and thus continue to make money but still protect the area. One of the biggest benefits of ecotourism is that, with no negative impact being made upon the environment, the communities are reaping the financial rewards without having to shoulder any burden of stress upon the land.

…Another of the benefits of ecotourism that is harder to measure is the opportunity it provides to educate tourists in a unique, hands-on capacity. People who live in cities and suburbs may be sympathetic to the needs of various rural communities worldwide, but it’s a very different thing to look at pictures or film versus actually going to a place and experiencing its effects in person. Not only will they spend the money to get that experience, they will encourage others to do the same, and many will even be prompted to get more politically involved. If fragile ecosystems are given more support at the governmental level, they are far more likely to survive and thrive for generations to come.

… studies are showing that ecotourism is reducing poverty and doing more to protect local environments and even improve their conditions. Because people who travel to such far-reaching places want to see something as pristine as possible, the drive is on to reclaim any land that had started to degrade. The more there is to see, the more ecotourists will come. But with a tight hand kept on the management of the tourists, the impact on the system is still negligible.

Here then, are some ideas for how we can ensure a good quality of life and strong sustainable economy for our community, and, at the same time, a vibrant, healthy habitat for wildlife, by building on our natural and social capital, without depleting the riches gifted to us by Nature.