Rural Businesses on Vancouver Island: Challenges and Opportunities
Siemens, Lynne Marie
Many rural areas are undergoing structural changes as jobs in forestry, fishing, mining, agricultural and other natural resource-based industries decline. These communities, often based around these industries, are generally small and located some distance from urban areas. They are faced with decreasing population as residents and their families leave for jobs elsewhere. As a result, the communities and residents are looking for alternative ways to create employment and sustain themselves. Given the nature of these rural locations, many small businesses based there face challenges that are not generally experienced by enterprises in urban areas. Some communities are not accessible by paved road while others are not accessible by road at all, relying instead on water and air transportation. The business people in these areas often operate without standard business infrastructure, which can include telephone lines, broadband Internet, banking services and other items, and can have difficulty accessing supplies, customers, employees and other required materials. However, there has been relatively little research on the challenges facing rural businesses and the specific methods by which these owners mitigate these challenges. Understanding and addressing the challenges faced by these businesses becomes important in order to support and encourage economic growth and development in these rural communities. Building on this context, this research looks to answer the following questions: • Why do people start businesses in rural locations? • What type of businesses do they start? • What challenges do these rural businesses face? • How do owners respond to these challenges? Vancouver Island and the surrounding smaller islands in British Columbia, Canada serve as the research site. Given the exploratory nature of this research, an inductive approach has been selected with the use of case studies, interviews and grounded theory analysis. Purposeful sampling is used with the sample businesses meeting specific criteria, based on location, business size and definition of success. These businesses are interviewed at their locations to allow the researcher to experience the challenges associated with accessing the particular rural community. The interview topics are focused on the above research questions. There are several common characteristics among the sample owners and their businesses. The owners tend to be in-migrants who moved to the rural area for lifestyle reasons. They have started their business to provide an income, take advantage of a business opportunity, or both. Family members, particularly spouses, are actively involved in the business. In many cases, participants supplement their business income with other income sources to ensure business viability. Success is measured generally by personal and lifestyle goals, rather than financial criteria. The businesses face common challenges in terms of a limited local population base which impacts on market size and labour pool, rural location and access to urban centres, gaps in business and social services infrastructure and heavy time demands. The owners respond to these challenges in a variety of ways which includes the involvement of family, core business diversification, alternative income sources, long hours invested in the business and involvement with the community. To meet these challenges and devise their responses, the owners draw upon four key resources – their own skills and attitudes, their family, business and community. The resulting conceptual framework draws together these key resources and suggests that all four must be present to ensure success within a rural context. Each resource is comprised of several components which contribute to business success. The framework also integrates several resource-based theories, which consider the key resources either separately or in pairs, to create a holistic model. The conclusions focus on several key areas. This research contributes to the knowledge base on rural small businesses by creating a framework that draws directly from the experience of these owners and their objectives and motivations for their businesses. It reflects their internal focus and a concentration of the four resources that they access easily from within their domain. This research also suggests some possible roles for government which focus on its role in shaping the larger environment, particularly at the infrastructure level and human capital development. Finally, future research directions are recommended. This study considers a relatively unexplored topic and suggests ways for rural small businesses to address the challenges which they face. With this knowledge, individuals, businesses, communities and other interested organizations can work to achieve their economic development goals.