It’s often said that there’s little holding youth in Port Alberni and even less to pull them back after they’ve left.
Young people have been finishing high school and leaving Port Alberni for decades but now they’re finally starting to trickle back.
“It’s hard to find people from my generation, from my graduating classes, that have been willing to want to move back,” Ty Hanson, 27, said.
Hanson, who grew up in town, left straight out of high school in 2005 to go to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
He tried out a year of general sciences and a year of engineering before settling on pharmacy, which he went on to practice in Nanaimo, Kelowna and Tofino.
“I had no intention to come back initially,” Hanson admitted.
But despite finding jobs, he had a hard time finding a “good work fit.”
He found that perfect fit this summer working at the West Coast Urgent Care Clinic on Maple Way.
“It was just a perfect opportunity to get some experience in running and maintaining a clinical pharmacy at the walk-in level,” Hanson said.
He likes the spirit of collaboration, something he’d always felt was missing at corporate pharmacies where patients come in from different doctors.
“The walk-in clinic is very tight-knit with a lot of good doctors,” Hanson said. He’s always preferred walk-in clinics “because it allows for better communication with physicians and you gain a heightened sense of responsibility working with a lot of their patients who come directly from the doctors to you.”
Unlike Hanson, Rebecca Palmer, 25, was always planning to come back.
“I left to go to school and gain experience out of Port Alberni,” Palmer, who works at Gayle’s Fashions, said. “I feel like it was really important for my personal growth and the growth of my business.”
Palmer, who left Port Alberni in 2007 to study fashion merchandising at Blanche Macdonald Centre in Vancouver, always planned to move back to town.
“I just didn’t know how long I would need to be away for to feel like I had a good learning experience.”
That time span turned out to be three years.
“I moved back to help my mom [Gayle Stephen-Player, owner of Gayle’s Fashions] run the business with the idea of taking over.”
She plans to stay here for the long term, start a family and raise kids to populate the city’s recreational facilities.
“I definitely plan to have kids and raise them here.”
Palmer admits that she’s lucky to have had something to return to.
“I had [the store] as an opportunity to move back to Port Alberni,” she said. “I know a lot of people don’t know what they’re going to do when they move back to Port Alberni.”
Succession planning is rare in Port Alberni, with many business owners closing up shop instead of passing their business on to someone new.
“It’s so important and there’s so much opportunity right now because there’s a lot of business owners in town that are getting older and looking to get out and they want younger people to take it over.”
Palmer also sees opportunity in the city’s many vacant storefronts.
“I think where we are in the economy right now is a good time to get into the market because if we start getting all these big projects that people are talking about… it’s going to be way more expensive to rent or buy a place.”
Hanson also sees employment as the biggest barrier to youth returning to the Valley.
“The job market is one of people’s biggest complaints about Port Alberni and I think it’s a huge, huge struggle. If people can’t work in town they feel no sense of needing to stay in town.”
Beyond jobs, there’s also a sense of involvement.
“The social thing is the biggest thing about staying anywhere, is that you need a social network. I do get worried that the social network will dwindle instead of grow and that would be a point of contention for me leaving.”
That’s something that Sharie Minions, 27, found as well.
“Even for myself, and I grew up here, I find it hard to get involved socially still because I have a young family and it’s a different dynamic. It’s a tough community to break into and I think that groups like the Young Professionals (which Minions co-founded) are really helping.”
Minions moved back in 2010 and while she got involved socially, she yearned for more acceptance in the business scene.
As a mortgage broker who started practicing in Victoria, she was shocked by how difficult it was for her to break in here.
“I was used to attending business events in Victoria surrounded by young people, encouraged by young people, networking was easy.”
It wasn’t quite the same in Port Alberni.
“I went to my first chamber of commerce meeting and not a single person talked to me because I wasn’t a member of the ‘club.’”
Along with the lack of social connections, the “mature-dominated business market” was a catalyst for the creation of the Young Professionals of the Alberni Valley.
“I was involved in starting the Young Professionals because I was involved in the Young Professionals of Nanaimo.”
Seeing how helpful a cohesive group of young business people involved in their community could be motivated Minions and a couple of others to start a chapter here.
One of the main things that Minions and the other co-founders wanted for the group was to get involved in civic politics.
In Minion’s case, she got a little more than just involved when she ran for and won a seat on city council last November.
It was a huge jump for Minions, who hadn’t even voted in the 2011 municipal election.
“I had no interest whatsoever. Fast forward three years and I’m on council.”
It was a slow progression for Minions.
“I started following it, I started realizing I had opinions… I didn’t really know I had opinions till I started watching it and stuff started making me angry.”
When Minions started sharing her opinions on social media, more and more of her friends told her to run.
But there was one issue that really made Minions mad and pushed her to run.
“They were talking about putting out a request for proposals to develop the Harbour Quay Marine building and there was all this resistance,” Minions said. While ultimately the RFP was put out and there was no interest the resistance to even asking for proposals perplexed Minions.
“I just kept thinking, what are we even saying no to? It’s a request for proposals, we haven’t even heard their ideas! That mentality was so frustrating to me.”
Minions started going to every council meeting, reading all the agendas and got more and more involved.
“Once you get involved, you really get involved.”
But while Minions got as involved as it gets, she understands that most young people won’t get to that level and so the city needs to make it easier for youth to get involved.
“We don’t have enough young people who are interested and involved.”
She remembers going to city budget meetings last year and not seeing anyone in her generation.
“There wasn’t anyone there under 50 and the lack of young people getting involved really motivated me to run.”
Minions thinks that online engagement is the way to go for young people who aren’t willing to attend a council meeting in person.
“I honestly think that young people are not comfortable attending council meetings. It doesn’t mean they’re not interested, it means they’re not comfortable.”
If council meetings were online, Minions thinks more youth would get involved, although she admits that even that’s not enough.
“Most people are not going to sit through a four-hour council meeting and watch all of it, whether you’re on your couch or not.”
Instead, Minions believes that greater engagement both by candidates and the city itself on social media is key.
“I think we need to be bringing information to the people and bringing it in front of them where they really can’t ignore it.”
Hanson sees steps like these by the new council as positive.
“The newly elected council are quite progressive, I feel.”
He’d like to see them work to get more involved bringing jobs to Port Alberni, as well as making sure that residents have the training for those jobs.
“I think in terms of education and trades that’s starting to come forward but I would like to see more young people trained here and staying here.”
For those moving back, Palmer believes they need to look realistically at the opportunities available here and make sure they have the qualifications to match.
“Try and go to school for something that there’s a job availability for here if you want to live here and have the quality of life we have here.”
The quality of life was key for Palmer, Hanson and Minions.
“I think the lifestyle is affordable, it offers really easy access to the west coast, Tofino and Ucluelet for people who like to get away,” Hanson said.
“It’s still rural enough but not too rural. I like being close to the west coast, being able to go surf or spend the weekend but still close to ferries, seaplanes, all that.
Minions agrees and thinks that if the word gets out, people will flock here.
“I think Port Alberni’s biggest challenge is the image issue. People often say to me that Port Alberni is a town that looks like it’s given up.”
That’s an impression that needs to change, especially for the young people the city needs to attract to grow.
“We need to show that here are young people here too and there are young people doing great things.”