Rural grant program missing from budget as $25M redirected to forestry crisis response
Downtown revitalization among projects set back by loss of Rural Dividend Program
Small town mayors in B.C. are lamenting the absence of a grant program in this week's provincial budget that supported economic development projects for rural communities.
The $25-million Rural Dividend Program provided grants to rural communities of up to 25,000 people for projects ranging from infrastructure to planning and training.
But the program funding was reallocated last September toward a new $69-million fund to help unemployed sawmill workers.
In an interview B.C. Finance Minister Carole James defended the decision not to fund the rural grant program in the 2020/21 budget announced on Feb. 18.
"I think all communities, particularly rural communities, understand the pressure that is being faced by forest communities right now," James told Radio West host Sarah Penton.
"I think they understand the fact that there was a critical need there for communities, for families who were losing their jobs, for businesses that were going under," James said. "They understand the need to make sure that you set priorities and you ensure that those dollars go to the priorities."
Projects affected by the suspension of the Rural Dividend program included a proposal by South Peace Health Services Society to build accommodations for visiting medical patients.
"I don't like it, but I understand why they've done it," Dawson Creek Mayor Dale Bumstead said of the funding suspension.
Sparwood Mayor David Wilks said the reallocation of the rural grant funds meant his community wasn't able to obtain a grant toward the long-planned revitalization of its Centennial Square.
"We relied on that small dividend fund and it helped us leverage other grant opportunities," Wilks said. With the decision not to reinstate the program this year he said it is clear the municipality needs to find other sources for funding.
"Hopefully when the financial picture looks better in British Columbia, they'll look at it again, Wilks said.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said the program remains in the ministry base budget despite the reallocation of most of its funds to support forest workers.
A final decision on the future of the program has not been announced.
With files from Nicole Oud and Radio West.