Town’s will to survive strong

SHOAL LAKE, Man. — What Shoal Lake lacks in size, it makes up for in community spirit.

Like many rural communities, there is no shortage of ideas for upgrading existing services and adding new ones, just limited funds.

Don Yanick, reeve for the rural municipality of Yellowhead and a former Shoal Lake mayor and mixed farmer, said ideas for service upgrades are key to attracting and retaining residents.

In the summer, the town offers campgrounds, museums, a golf course and a lake fed by the Oak River and stocked with fish. In the winter, the Communiplex is a hub.

“We have long winters. The hockey and curling rinks, they’re the heart of the community in the wintertime,” he said of the town of 800 and service area of 1,250.

“We have to stay progressive,” Yanick said, citing current plans to add dressing rooms and washrooms to the rink with direct access to the outside to accommodate events such as the rodeo and annual agricultural fair.

Outside the rink, Rick Eastcott, volunteer fire chief with the 19-member Shoal Lake Emergency Response Team, poses beside a $300,000 fire truck.

“You can drive along and spray as you go,” he said of the front-end monitors used to extinguish grass fires.

Eastcott said at most, fire trucks have a life of about 25 years before they must be replaced.

Such improvements require money, some of which comes from government funding, in kind labour, corporate grants and fundraising. The dressing room project, expected to cost $326,000, has been helped by $50,000 from the RM and by numerous corporate donors, including the most recent, a $10,000 Bayer Crop Science’s grant. Now in its second year and aimed at community improvement projects, it was offered to seven towns this year.

Theresa Michalchuk, president of the Shoal Lake Agricultural Society, said the Communiplex is a good complement to the adjacent fairgrounds.

The fair, which has been staged in Shoal Lake annually since 1885, is one in a series of fairs in the district dubbed the Milk Run and held on consecutive days in July.

“We don’t want to see it die,” she said.

Staging an event midweek is challenging so organizers get help from the RM, which gives office workers the day off to work at the fair, high school students who get credit toward school courses and the local Lions club that manages a community meal.

Yanick said the fair and other events like the local airport’s fly-in breakfast put Shoal Lake on the map, give the town exposure and generate revenue for local businesses.

Shoal Lake Flying Club president Dennis Schoonbaert said the breakfast event draws 48 planes to the strip each year.

He hopes a government capital assistance program can be acc-essed for a $1 million runway project to install new asphalt.

“For a local community to carry that cost, it’s not feasible,” he said.

Schoonbaert said about 200 people have received their pilot’s licences from the airport over the years.

He said the airfield, which houses 17 planes, is used by Parks Canada, the air ambulance service and other government officials in addition to businesses and local pilots.

In addition to such facilities, the district also boasts two museums: the Mounted Police Museum in Shoal Lake and the Prairie Mountain Regional Museum east of town on Highway 16.

Prairie Mountain features a 16,000 sq. ft. museum filled with a large collection of horse drawn carts and wagons from past decades in addition to period homes and a one-room schoolhouse.

Provincial funding, a federal employment program for hiring a summer student and a crop growing project help support the project alongside numerous volunteers.

“We base a lot on volunteers. … They put their heart and soul into that. That’s what we count on,” said Yanick, who has also served on the hospital board and regional health board.

The police museum operates on an annual budget of $5,000, receiving RM and chamber of commerce grants of $1,000 apiece, $500 from RBC and a Young Canada Works funding for a summer student.

Barbara Pettinger, the museum’s secretary-treasurer, said it’s always challenging to find people to serve on the board for the museum, which replicates the first North West Mounted Police barracks here in 1875.

It promotes itself in highway signs, the town’s website and a Westman tourism passport and relies on silver donations from visitors and a local electrician who works on the building for free.

The wooden buildings are vulnerable to the elements and other dangers, she said, noting most of the donated artifacts are irreplaceable.

“There’s no fire prevention, it’s probably a concern but it’s what we have and we just deal with it and keep it acclimatized as best we can,” said Pettinger.

Humidity from last year’s wet conditions caused mould in leather goods, which had to be dried out.

Yanick said volunteer labour and donated supplies can reduce costs on projects to 40 cents on the dollar.

He conceded it’s tough to compete for funding with similar towns but it’s worth the effort.

“I always say it you’re not doing anything, you’re standing still, you’re going backwards actually,” he said.

Yanick said the town welcomes community input and noted recent local efforts to create a splash park.

“It’s better if we have the community come up with ideas because then you know you have a core bunch of volunteers that are going to work on that,” he said.

Dennis Green, economic development officer for the Shoal Lake region community development corporation, said keeping young people in town is a big goal.

“Having these facilities here really keeps people here,” said Green, who added that 83 percent of the population is currently age 65 and older.

He said the lake is a natural attraction that has much potential for walking trails, fishing, canoe rental business and more homes around the lake, adding it’s ideally suited for windsurfing competitions.

“We have all the services you really need and Brandon’s not that far away if you need more,” he said, citing a hospital and K- 12 school.

For younger families, Green and Yanick say small town life offers safety and security.

“You’ve never too far from somebody who knows somebody,” said Green.

He said the community in the heart of farming country once had more agricultural equipment dealers than Brandon.

It’s currently looking forward to a short-line agricultural equipment enterprise and tire company moving to town and employing up to eight people.

“It’s a double edged sword in smaller communities. Business retention is as important as bringing businesses in,” Green said.

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