…”A time zone away from Kamloops in the East Kootenay village of Canal Flats, a whole new community of the future is taking shape. Entrepreneur Brian Fry and his business partner, Tim Dufour, sold RackForce Networks, their Kelowna-based cloud services firm, in 2015. That year the Columbia Basin Trust introduced them to Brian Fehr, chair of Prince George–headquartered BID Group, who had made his fortune through sawmill automation.
Fehr wanted to get into the data centre business, so in 2017 he bought the shuttered sawmill and more than 1,000 acres in Canal Flats, with a plan to build an entire town around the idea. The result was the Columbia Lake Technology Center (CLTC), whose ventures include a fabrication shop making parts for automated sawmills on behalf of BID Group; and PodTech Innovation, founded by Fry and Dufour, which builds compact, prefabricated data centres that store information for technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
In December, 71 people worked at the CLTC, a member of the Columbia Valley Chamber of Commerce. When the mill in the village of about 700 shut down, it employed 75. New housing is being built, with live-work spaces, shops, restaurants and an encircling canal to follow. The data centres run on hydro power, so they have a small carbon footprint. Their heat will become part of a district energy loop for greenhouses and other buildings. To make a viable community, CLTC chief executive Lorri Fehr wants the population to grow to 2,000.
In rural areas, Fehr says, data storage providers usually come in, grab the energy, hire few people and sit there. “We have an incredible commitment to rural B.C. and the people in rural B.C.,” she asserts, noting that PodTech units can be moved to other towns. “We see Canal Flats as a model for B.C. and, indeed, rural areas across the country. Because so many of our communities have been dependent on a single resource, and we want to switch that out.”
Rural communities can also help urban B.C. maintain its edge. Fibre optics, abundant energy and affordable housing make them an option for talent-strapped companies in Vancouver and elsewhere, CLTC co-founder Fry says. “We think constantly about how we can grow these centres and how we can create opportunities for them, rather than what typically the story is, that these small towns are all getting smaller and losing opportunities to the bigger city centres.”