Amenity Migrants And The Rebirth Of The North American Small Town

fernie british columbia revitalization photo main street

Cover of Scenic Fernie

Randal Macnair, the former mayor of Fernie, British Columbia, used the term "Amenity Migrant" to describe the people moving to the former depressed coal town in the Canadian Rockies. It is a term that, according to Ray Chipeniuk, started with American demographers in the late 1970s and early 80s, an era marked by a back-to-the-land movement in both the US and Canada. He is quoted in Northword:

"It appeared something really quite extraordinary was going on. People were moving in large numbers to parts of the US where every indication was that there should be low employment, largely due to collapses in natural resource industries."

But the Internet and the rise of the independent homeworker has made it even more extraordinary. Fernie demonstrates what happens when you mix mountains, historic buildings and streetscapes, the Internet and the Creative Class: Boom.

fernie british columbia revitalization photo courthouse

Waferboard on Flickr,

Part of Fernie's success is the fact that it has maintained so much of its historic streetscapes and buildings, like this courthouse that the provincial government abandoned and that the municipality restored. (and then leased back to the government.) The main street is picture postcard pretty, full of shops and businesses servicing the tourists and the knowledge workers who have moved into town.

fernie british columbia revitalization photo 901 fernie

The old high school was converted into condos, and main street commercial buildings are being upgraded and renovated to create more residential units. People come for the character of the community, not for the Walmart. It is often disruptive, with arguments between the new people and the existing residents who would rather see a new power center in the suburbs. Ray Chipeniuk told Northword:

There is a tendency for the representatives in the local government to be people who were economic migrants originally, or who were born and raised here. And because they tend to be older men, they often find it difficult to believe in this invisible economic engine of amenity migration.

I asked Randal how this played out in Fernie, and he said "That's why I got elected- if you want to change things you have to change the government."

Randall from Lloyd Alter on Vimeo.

I interviewed Randal Macnair at the Heritage Canada Foundation conference in St. John's, Newfoundland, a town where the historic downtown is slowly being eaten up by hotels and office buildings. Interestingly, even though he talked of new media and the wireless world of the knowledge worker, he quit as mayor to become a publisher of dead tree poetry books. I thought it odd; he did not explain that he is also the grandson of the great Canadian poet Dorothy Livesay. I suppose it's in the blood.

More on Amenity Migrants, before we learned the term:

Your Office is Where You Are
Your Office is In Your Pants: 6 Trends Shaping The Way We Work

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