Provincial statistics paint Summerland as an aging community, whose shrinking population lags far behind the rest of the province in a number of social indices measuring wealth and ethnic diversity.
But if these measures strengthen stereotypes about the region, others point to social conditions that may well benefit it if leveraged accordingly.
By way of background, the statistics cover the Summerland Health Area, as defined by the provincial government. It includes the District Municipality of Summerland and surroundings areas within the political jurisdiction of the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen.
Most notably, the population living in the Summerland Health Area declined by 2.2 per last year from the previous year to 11,465.
This figure earned the area the (dubious) honour of first place among surveyed regions with shrinking populations, ahead of Grand Forks and the South Okanagan (Oliver/Osoyoos), whose respective populations declined by 1.7 per cent each. Provincially, B.C. population’s grew by 1.6 per cent.
But if this overall figure represents anemic growth at best, the local numbers could spell significant trouble ahead for the business community and the municipality, for they mean fewer customers and taxpayers who could help finance public services.
At the same time, a shrinking population could in the long-run diminish the need for services, creating a sort of stagnating equilibrium between the supply and demand for social provisions.
The cause for Summerland’s shrinking population is readily identifiable. Its population — like the overall population of countries in the western world including Canada — is getting older thanks to improved medical care and declining birth rates in the face of broader cultural and economic trends. The region’s reputation as a retirement destination has only fuelled this trend.
Consider the numbers. Seniors aged 65 and over make up 25.4 per cent (or 2,911 residents) of the local population. That figure far exceeds the province-wide number of seniors (15 per cent) and worse, the total number of local residents aged 0 through 24, which account for 25.2 per cent of the local population.
Breaking down the younger cohorts, residents aged 18 to 24 make up just 8.3 per cent, suggesting that the bulk of local high school graduates turn their back on the community in the pursuit of educational and professional accomplishments elsewhere.
While some might return later in adult life with the intention of settling down to raise children, recent trend lines suggest that their numbers are insufficient to stem the loss of population and the various consequences that accompany this demographic decline, such as the potential loss of educational resources through school closure.
Regional leaders could compensate these effects by attempting to attract individuals and their families not to mention their resources and ideas from inside and outside of Canada to the region.
Selling points as revealed by the regional statistics include low crime levels as Summerland ranks below the provincial average in a number of relevant categories, high life expectancy (83.1 years) and a good if not excellent educational system that has produced a qualified regional work force.
Consider the numbers. Local graduation rates from high school exceed the provincial average by almost 10 per cent and the share of the population aged 25 to 54 without some degree of post-secondary education is below the provincial average, even as the number of local 25- to 64-year-olds with a university degree is about six per cent below the provincial average of 24.1.
This confirms earlier suggestions that the community loses many of its young adults to larger centres, where they can choose from better economic and educational opportunities.
On the balance, these numbers suggest that Summerland could be an attractive destination.
The natural features of the region have certainly done their fair share to attract newcomers.
But they immediately lose some of their lustre when held up against measures tracking employment and income. Less than 40 per cent of residents living in Summerland hold full-time, non-seasonal jobs. The provincial average is just under 47 per cent.
Not surprisingly, residents of Summerland earn less than British Columbians elsewhere. Whereas the average provincial income topped out at $34,978 in 2010, Summerland residents earned on average $28,423 — a difference of more than $6,500.
Such figures coupled with high housing costs and other conditions such as the absence of cultural variety appear as significant deterrents to the recruitment of new residents.
If they encourage local youth to leave, why they would attract outsiders?
Historically, the region has also had little experience in attracting and integrating immigrants from non-European backgrounds, who currently make up the bulk of newcomers to Canada.
This path-dependency becomes apparent in the number of visible minorities that live in Summerland. Whereas almost 25 per cent of the provincial population qualifies as a visible minority, just 3.4 per cent (375 residents) do so. Evidence also suggests that this number has stagnated, perhaps for good reasons in light of the following number.
Recent immigrants to Summerland — it is not clear whether they qualify as visible minorities or not — earned an average of just $5,241, according to 2005 employment figures.