Jobs and economic growth is the No. 1 issue in Westman, according to a Probe Research poll conducted for the Brandon Sun.
One in four people listed the economy when asked "What do you consider to be the most important issue or concern facing your community today?"
Probe senior research associate Curtis Brown said he first noticed the economy becoming more and more top-of-mind last year.
"Things were booming, especially in the oil and gas sector, but over the past couple of years for a number of reasons it’s slowed down a bit, and I think people are concerned about that," Brown said.
Trailing the economy are concerns over failing and aging infrastructure, listed by 20 per cent of the people who participated in the poll, which relied on telephone interviews between Jan. 20 and Jan. 26.
Brown said crumbling roads, aging water and sewer systems and other infrastructure projects have really climbed up the list of priorities for Westman residents — a trend that aligns with other data from across the province.
Brandon Chamber of Commerce president Craig Senchuk said he’s pleased to see the economy and infrastructure are priorities for the area.
The provincial unemployment rate remained low at 5.5 per cent in December, according to Statistics Canada.
In Brandon, Senchuk said most businesses have vacancies and are looking to add people, building off the success of the oilpatch and agricultural sector.
"I think a lot of people don’t see the economy as a concern but as a big opportunity here, so how are we going to take advantage of it?" Senchuk said.
The two top concerns are linked too, according to Senchuk, as better infrastructure is required in some areas to take advantage of economic opportunities.
He points to some of the bridges still not repaired in Westman as an example of something that is hindering industry in the province’s southwest corner.
As the area’s largest trading centre, Brandon is hurt when Westman can’t live up to its economic potential.
Affordable housing slipped from seven to five per cent in the poll. However, the issue is far more prominent in Brandon compared to the rest of rural Westman.
Nine per cent of Brandon residents listed housing as a concern compared to only three per cent in rural Westman.
The random survey sampled a total of 804 residents — 404 in Brandon and 400 in rural communities in the Westman area.
While the issue of affordable housing is more prevalent in Brandon, even in the city the debate slipped from 2012, when 15 per cent of people listed it as a concern, compared to only nine per cent this year.
"Free-enterprise people feel like the market will take care of that," Senchuk said, adding that there are a number of rules and regulations that discourage builders from looking at more dense and affordable housing options.
"If we can make it a friendly environment to build apartments and housing, then it will take it care of itself."
Mayor Shari Decter Hirst has been one of the catalysts in the affordable housing debate. She said it’s important to continue to address the problem.
"We can’t back away from some of the strategic initiatives, especially for the core targeted areas such as seniors. There are some projects that will be soon coming online for student housing and an ongoing concern for places where people can raise their families," Decter Hirst said. "When (the federal and provincial governments) don’t shoulder their fair share, the city needs to fill that gap."
Five per cent of respondents listed taxes as a concern, a slight increase compared to four per cent last year, but again the split between urban vs. rural was evident.
Eleven per cent of respondents in Brandon listed taxes compared to two per cent in the rest of Westman.
"We don’t want our existing tax base to pay more. We want to look at economic development and grow our tax base so there are more businesses and more people in the community paying taxes," Decter Hirst said.
The unrest over taxes was at an all-time high in 2012, when 32 per cent of people listed it as a concern. That year, city council initially proposed a double-digit tax increase before paring it down.
This year, a modest 1.42 per cent increase was agreed on. However, it’s not known how much, if at all, the Brandon School Division will affect taxation. Last year, trustees voted for a 7.8 per cent increase.
Couple municipal and school tax increases with the provincial sales tax hike from seven to eight per cent and it explains the slight bump in the issue, according to Brown.
People making less than $30,000 only listed taxation two per cent of the time, compared to 10 per cent of people who made more than that.
Health care was the third most important issue, listed by 16 per cent of respondents. This time, however, it was rural residents (19 per cent) who brought up the issue significantly more than their urban counterparts (nine per cent).
Minnedosa Mayor Ray Orr isn’t shocked by the numbers.
Minnedosa is just one of a number of communities that is suffering from a shortage of doctors.
Prairie Mountain Health recently announced the Minnedosa Health Centre will have no emergency room or acute care services on weekends, beginning Saturday at 8 a.m. and running through until Monday at 8 a.m. There will also be no service this Friday.
"Doctor shortages are the major concern," Orr said. "We’re getting one doctor but we have another one who is leaving and it’s an issue for us that is very important."
The survey also found people 55 years and older are more likely to be worried about health care (22 per cent) compared to people aged 33-54 (14 per cent) and those aged 18-34 (10 per cent.)
When the full 804 participants are factored in, the survey is deemed to be accurate within plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
» Twitter: @CharlesTweed
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition February 4, 2014