Former Granisle Mayor and current general manager of the Babine Lake Community Forest Society, Fredrick Clarke is the face of a proposed innovation centre project he hopes will find broad regional support.
Backed by the board of directors of the Babine Lake Community Forest Society, Clarke is proposing that the now closed Topley Elementary School building be converted into a centre for industrial and intellectual innovation.
He recently made a presentation to School District 91 at a board meeting and found the school district receptive to the idea of putting unused building to good use. Within the next month, Clarke hopes to fit in presentations to village councils in Fort St. James, Vanderhoof and Fraser Lake, before moving on to western municipalities in the new year.
“What we want to do is have a general meeting after all these presentations and then start the innovation centre,” Clarke said.
Without developing non-resource reliant markets, Clarke fears the region will remain too dependent on commodity prices, boom-bust resource cycles, and the whims of nature which unleashed the mountain pine beetle epidemic.
“Essentially what this is about is these small communities that only have one major industry, and sometimes only one actor in that industry,” he explained. “If they lose their major player, their community flattens right out. There’s an absolute need to have secondary and tertiary layers of industry.”
Clarke sees the as-yet unnamed centre for innovation as a kind of innovation incubator where people or industry can take a concept from idea to reality.
Other innovation centres exist in the Northwest, like the Skeena-Nass Centre for Innovation in Resource Economics, but Clarke’s vision includes a uniquely practical component.
Clarke would like to see the elements of industrial design, prototyping and the physical resources to develop secondary markets right at the Topley innovation centre, if that’s where it ends up.
For example, he’d like to see a wood drying kiln at the innovation centre capable of drying wood to the low moisture levels required for furniture grade wood.
“If you wanted to make a chest of drawers or a table, there isn’t one kiln between Prince George and Prince Rupert that will dry down to furniture grade,” Clarke said.
A furniture grade lumber kiln in the region would be a boost to local secondary markets, the kind of industrial innovation the region needs according to Clarke.
“It’s a good thing to start now, and not wait for calamity,” Clarke said. “There are a lot of things you can do to make your community economically more sound.”
The unused Topley elementary school is a starting reference point for the project, but he isn’t married to the idea.
“It would be cheaper than starting with a green field,” Clarke said. “It’s quite a bit larger than we need at this point, but if we can get it at the right price it will work.”
After meetings with local governments in the region, Clarke’s plan is to take the discussion to the next level where interested stakeholders can hold meetings to iron out the details for the proposed innovation centre.