- Written by Emily Rop Emily Rop
- Published: 03 February 2017 03 February 2017
One hundred years ago, the roundhouse in Hanna, Alta. would have been a bustling hub for railway workers and travelers passing through. Metal would be screeching, engines roaring, and whistles blowing, but now, the abandoned building that once serviced thousands of locomotives is silent.
The train tracks are covered by rust and soil, disappearing under the long grass with nowhere to go. The roundhouse has been boarded up and parts of the brick and wood are crumbling down, a towering shadow of what used to be. Though it appears as an ominous warning of a ghost town in the making, it may actually be one of this small Alberta town’s opportunities to revitalize itself in the face of a critical crossroads.
Although growing cities and changing technologies are generally viewed as marks of progress in urban society, they also come at a cost, as vibrant rural communities are disrupted and, in many cases, deserted.
Because of evolving technologies, the industries which once supported Alberta’s rural communities are becoming obsolete. From railroads to traditional agriculture, the economies at the centre of the province’s towns have shifted and changed, and in some cases, disappeared altogether.
Coal mining is one of the industries facing extinction. It is estimated that 1,800 coal mines have operated throughout the province’s history, but now, only five mines are used for electricity generation along with 18 coal-fired power plants.
The provincial government has moved to speed up the elimination of coal in Alberta. Although the federal government has already been working towards this goal, the expedited demise of the coal industry means that Alberta’s small towns are faced with a shorter timeline to adapt and plan for the transition.
Hanna is one of these towns.
Located three hours northeast of Calgary and home to nearly 2,600 people, the town relies on the Sheerness coal mine, owned by Westmoreland Coal Company, and the adjacent coal-fired power plant, co-owned by ATCO Power and TransAlta as two of its major employers.
The Sheerness mine and power plant are scheduled to shut down by 2030.
Chris Warwick, the mayor of Hanna, knows that the impending closure of the mine and generating station will hit the town hard.
“There is the potential to lose 10-25 per cent of our population as a direct result,” says Warwick.
“It will be very devastating to us.”
Phasing out coal
Coal has been used as a primary fuel source for centuries, but over time it has been replaced by other resources such as oil and natural gas. Now, with the push towards more environmentally sustainable resources, coal towns face an imminent challenge with the closure of the remaining coal mines in Alberta.
According to the Coal Association of Canada, 55 per cent of Alberta’s electricity generation still comes from coal.
“There is the potential to lose 10-25 per cent of our population as a direct result. It will be very devastating to us.” - Chris Warwick, mayor of Hanna
However, the Alberta government has highlighted the negative health and environmental effects of coal in the Climate Leadership Plan, which was announced by Premier Rachel Notley on Nov. 22, 2015.
The plan states that “there will be no pollution from coal-fired electricity generation by 2030.” This means that six of Alberta’s coal-fired generating plants will be forced to close several years earlier than they would have been under federal requirements.
In Hanna, this means that the mine and generating station will be closed six years earlier than anticipated, and for some mines such as the one in Wabamun, Alta., the difference in time between when they originally expected to close and the current closure date is as large as 31 years.
The energy being produced by coal will be replaced by renewable energy and natural gas electricity. The towns that are built around the coal industry will be faced with the challenge of rebuilding their economies in order to survive.
With approximately 200 employees working at the Sheerness mine and generating station, the loss of jobs would directly affect close to 10 per cent of Hanna’s population. That percentage is considerably higher when a spouse or family is taken into consideration.
Warwick, a third-generation hardware store owner, knows first-hand the impact this will have on the business community and the town as a whole.
“If we lose 10 per cent of the population, then theoretically, 10 per cent of my sales will drop. That’s 10 per cent less income I have to employ people, and I may have to lay off 10 per cent of my employees. If I do that, and everybody else does that, it’s not very promising,” says Warwick.
The effects of the coal mine shutting down don’t end with the economy. In Hanna’s case, the water supply for the town and the surrounding area is operated by ATCO Power, which needs the water to operate the coal-fired generating station. If ATCO Power were to cease its maintenance on the pipeline once their power plant is shut down, the cost of water for Hanna would be 15-20 times higher, something Warwick says the town could not afford.
Hanna is working with Alberta Environment to come up with a better plan, but for now, the water supply remains a looming concern.
Since the news of the coal phase-out was released, rural Albertans have been vocal about their fears and concerns as the future of their hometowns is suddenly in jeopardy.
Warwick has been working on the frontlines in Hanna, both at his hardware store and as the mayor, and he hopes that despite the uncertain future, he can assure people that their town will live on.
“Right now I spend at least a half an hour a day just talking with people in the store about what’s going to happen and what it’s going to mean, and I love it,” says Warwick. “The situation can be frustrating at times, but I love being able to try and put people at ease and say it’s not going to be the end, we’re going to be here. It’s a strong community.”
Communication and mitigation are key
When an inevitable crisis such as this arises, what can rural Alberta towns do to overcome adversity and survive?
Dee Ann Benard, the executive director of the Rural Alberta Development Network, believes that communication among community members is vital to success.
“If you have a group of people in a community that have the right attitude and they're really committed to trying to make their community succeed, they often are successful,” says Benard. “In communities that are less successful, often their challenges are getting the people to agree on the issues and to work together towards solutions.”
“Now is not the time to panic. Now is the time to come together, and let's come up with a solution as a community together.” - Chris Warwick, mayor of Hanna
Warwick agrees that some of the most important keys to the survival of Hanna are communication, collaboration and leadership.
“Now is not the time to panic,” says Warwick. “Now is the time to come together, and let's come up with a solution as a community together.
Benard has seen examples of small towns overcoming similar situations and credits their resilience in part to being proactive.
“It's pretty tough if you wait until the problem happens. Suddenly, coal is out, so communities depending on coal are scrambling to try to find alternatives. Ideally, people start looking at trying to diversify early.”
With the loss of coal impending, the town of Hanna is hoping to mitigate the risk as much as they can and identify their assets and opportunities.
The town has been working on two studies that could help them lessen the effects of the coal phase-out. The Impact Study will provide data on the potential effect of the closure and the Assets and Opportunities Study will identify ways the town can utilize its strengths to move forward.
Warwick believes that studies such as these are crucial for a small town’s survival.
“I'll be honest, I'm the last person who wants to do studies,” says Warwick. “But this impact study that we've done, just seeing the draft copy that I've seen, I think it's imperative that every community do one. It really is an awakening and it gives you a baseline to go on. It really is an important thing.”
Cactus Corridor Economic Development Corporation (CCEDC) is a nonprofit organization that has been working with the town of Hanna and surrounding areas to help them develop and diversify their economic opportunities.
Trisha Sewell, the economic development officer with CCEDC, highlights the importance of being proactive and identifying the town’s assets.
“My hope is when we're facing some of the challenges we're facing, we look at things like tourism and some other industries to make sure the community is set up for success,” says Sewell.
Harnessing Hanna’s assets
The types of industries that Hanna can bring in once coal is eliminated will be crucial. Even if the town creates jobs to replace those that were lost, it will be difficult to replicate the quality and level of pay that coal industry jobs provide.
“It's not as simple as bringing in any type of industry to replace that, it has to be things that require education like trades, so that it really creates that economy where people are being paid well and then they trickle that back into the economy and everybody does well,” says Sewell.
Sewell has identified the town’s longstanding agricultural industry, its location as a transportation hub and the potential for renewable resource operations as three of Hanna’s primary assets that could help them through the transition away from coal.
When driving towards Hanna, farms and ranches extend in every direction under Alberta’s wide open prairie sky, with large herds of cattle dotting the landscape due to the area’s large livestock industry.
“Our agriculture industry has always been very strong,” says Sewell, who hopes to build on this foundation and harness any agricultural opportunities. “It has been the thing that has supported this community through many different changes, whether it be the railway or even this change we'll have with the coal transitioning.”
An example of an opportunity stemming from agriculture is the large John Deere dealership in Hanna which is in the process of expanding. In addition, Warwick says that the abundance of livestock in the area could create unique opportunities, such as the potential for a livestock health research centre.
Hanna is located off of Highway 36, a high-wide load corridor. This means that it sees a lot of traffic and is able to accommodate large transport vehicles moving north and south. In addition, the perpendicular Highway 9 is a busy road that often brings traffic to and from Saskatchewan.
“That's the one thing that I think is very positive for us, we're at least located on some major transportation highways and we have the ability to handle the traffic, so now we need to look at seizing those opportunities so we can move something forward that will help the region,” says Sewell.
In regards to renewable energy, Sewell says “we know it’s coming” and hopes the town will be prepared to engage with the possibilities that it brings, whether that means programs to educate people on wind and solar technology or even the creation of new renewable resource initiatives.
But opportunities aren’t limited to those three industries, and Sewell says it will be important to identify and map the town’s other assets, including social capital, human capital and infrastructure capital.
Connectivity is crucial for business growth. Fortunately for Hanna, the town has high-speed internet, something that was once rare in rural Alberta but is becoming a more common amenity that could draw in businesses and entrepreneurs.
The Rural Alberta Business Centre stationed in Hanna is where the business coach and connecter Larae Pierson provides support and resources to entrepreneurs and business owners in the area. In the past year, Pierson has helped launch 11 businesses and has observed an upward trend for entrepreneurs.
“I've been seeing more entrepreneurs lately who have been wanting to start their own businesses. I feel like, for a little while, there was kind of a holding pattern, especially after the news that we received in our community, but now the outlook has improved a bit,” says Pierson.
Warwick hopes the town can attract many new small businesses in addition to the 229 licensed businesses that already exist. He believes that diversifying industries will help provide stability when faced with future challenges.
The potential for tourism growth is another opportunity that the town and CCEDC have been exploring.
The area is already home to several tourist destinations, including Hanna Museum and Pioneer Village, Prairie Oasis Park, Fox Lake Park and a popular golf course. Hanna is also part of the Canadian Badlands and located only an hour from Drumheller.
Although the railroad is long gone, Warwick and Sewell agree the town’s railroad history may still be a vital asset in rebranding the town for tourism.
Incorporated as a town in 1914 and named after D.B. Hanna, vice president of the Canadian Northern Railway, Hanna’s primary role during its early years was as a railroad service point for the Goose Lake Line between Calgary and Saskatoon.
A roundhouse was built in Hanna, equipped with a turntable to maintain and repair the trains that passes through. The roundhouse employed machinists, boiler makers, carpenters, blacksmiths, welders and workers to handle coal and freight.
Soon after, businesses opened up around the train station, and it became the main hub for farmers and ranchers in the area to access goods and services.
These early settlers brought their families with them and the town developed its sense of
community through the arts, sports and recreation and community events. Hanna soon had a hospital, churches, schools, hotels, a small airport, parks, arenas, a fitness center, a museum and restaurants, among other amenities and local businesses.
Now, the town has preserved 20 of its historic buildings along with a collection of artifacts and records at the Hanna Museum and Pioneer Village. Visitors can travel back in time and visit sites such as the town’s first hospital, staged with medical equipment from its time, or step into a 1930s schoolhouse and hear the bell ring as though class is about to begin.
John Kaster, president of the Hanna Museum and Historical Society, believes that Hanna’s history is an indication of its strength. The town was built on the foundations of agriculture and the railroad, but when the railroad became obsolete, Hanna adapted and shifted towards the coal industry.
“We've developed a lot of survival skills,” says Kaster. “We seem to ride a roller coaster. There’s been changes in agriculture, we had lots of CNR people for a while but then that went down, and then we had coal miners and power plant operators, but now it looks like that doesn't have a long future.”
With coal now nearing the end of its lifetime, the town’s historical identity may help it to usher in an opportunity for tourism that could alleviate some of the impacts they are facing.
CCEDC has been working on a grassroots initiative called All Aboard to harness this opportunity and give Hanna a railtown theme, which incorporates several projects including railroad signage, roundhouse restoration, a dinner theatre and museum programs.
Sewell says that this theme was created through talking to people in the community and asking them what was most identifiable about Hanna that could draw people into the town.
“A lot of people said, ‘our history, our pioneering history.’ And the railway is a really good fit because that's been a big part of our history. It's how we were formed, and even how we were named."
One of the tourism initiatives that has been developed in Hanna is the Museum Ghost Walks, where volunteers dress up as ghosts in the pioneer village to tell stories about Hanna’s past.
“The Ghost Walks have had a lot of success because people are actually immersed in it and experiencing history as it happens in the different buildings and then they're hearing the stories from the ghost, but in a way that's interesting and engaging,” says Sewell.
To emphasize the town’s railway identity, Hanna’s Councillor Brass Campion secured crossbucks from a nearby railroad that was being torn down. Now, these signs have been restored and placed around town as a salute to its railroad pioneers.
There has also been interest in restoring the roundhouse, which Warwick believes would be a substantial attraction to bring people to the town, but the project is a huge undertaking and would cost millions of dollars to complete. However, he hopes that it’s still something that the town and the Hanna Roundhouse Society can continue striving for.
A future for Hanna
If towns such as Hanna can survive, the whole province will benefit from the resources that rural Alberta contributes.
“If you want to have oil and gas and farming and all those kinds of things, you need communities in rural Alberta to service them. And if you want people to live there, you have to have businesses and services to support them,” says Benard.
However, urban centers receive more of the attention and resources, so rural Alberta is left without the important supports that it needs, even though a third of the province’s population actually lives outside of the major urban centers.
“Our greatest challenge is retention, to keep people here, and when you pull an industry out of us like they’re proposing, it makes it even that much more difficult,” says Warwick.
Hanna’s population has dropped in the past two years, by six per cent in 2014 and four per cent in 2015. With the uncertain future ahead, it is even harder for the town to retain its population or draw more people in.
Return to Rural is one initiative that aims to encourage young people to go out and get an education, but then return to rural and start a life, using their skills to join the workforce or create a business of their own.
The project, created by the SAMDA Economic Partnership, uses social media to share videos, stories and resources to help people not only return to rural, but to thrive in rural and understand all of the options that towns such as Hanna can offer them.
Warwick is confident that if they are able to attract more businesses and people willing to move to Hanna, they won’t be disappointed.
“One of the things that I try to drive across to anybody is that we’re not living here because we have to, it’s a choice. We live here because we want to,” says Warwick, who has spent some time living in urban areas but always knew that this town was home.
For him, it has everything he needs, from the necessary amenities to a hockey arena and golf course. He is proud of the town’s sense of community and volunteerism, and as you could expect from a small town, it is known for being extremely friendly.
“Everybody knows everybody. I've seen countless times, people are driving and they get stuck in the winter or something like that and the first person to come is a farmer who fires up his tractor. He'll come and pull you out, and if you try to offer him money, he would never ever ever ever take it. That's what rural life is.”
Despite the challenges ahead, the mayor is optimistic that Hanna is far from becoming a ghost town.
One of the recent videos published by Return to Rural showcases an interview with Warwick, who gives a message of hope and resilience for his town in the video titled #HannaStrong.
“We're open for business, and it's a great place to do business. The population will still be here. Hanna's not going to die. It will hurt us quite a lot, but we're resilient, and we will still be here for sure.”