Since 2015, the name Patty Vadnais has been synonymous with doing business in Fernie.
In her role as Executive Director of the Fernie Chamber of Commerce, Vadnais has listened to business owners’ concerns, championed their causes and celebrated their achievements.
Today, she will walk through the doors of the Visitor Centre as head of the service organization for the last time after accepting a position with emerging coal producer, North Coal.
“It’s been a lot of fun, that’s how I would describe it,” she saids.
“It’s fun to work with the business community, it’s fun to see what exciting things local entrepreneurs are doing and to assist however we can, whether it’s raising some issues with City Hall and saying ‘hey, these are the things we need to look at’ or whether it’s hosting workshops that help them build the skills that they want to build… it’s been a fun four years.”
Hailing from southern Alberta, Vadnais has a Masters degree in management with a research focus on non-profit governance.
Her industry experience is varied, ranging from farming to transportation to warehouse.
Vadnais had been living in Fernie for one year prior to joining the Chamber in March 2015, working a handful of jobs to make ends meet.
When she took the position, she was given a mandate by the Board – to position the Chamber as a vibrant organization and to fulfill its mission of strengthening commerce in Fernie.
Vadnais believes she and her team have met that mandate, and over four years the Chamber has grown from 250 to 278 members.
“We’ve definitely raised the profile of the organization in the past four years,” she said.
“The most recent tangible thing that we got accomplished is the highway signs, we now have signs on the highway that are pointing to downtown and I was talking to a business owner today and she said it’s working. She had a couple of ladies come into her shop on the weekend and they’d been through Fernie several times and they never knew about the downtown.
“That was something we’d heard from the downtown businesses – we really want some signage that tells people where downtown is because so many times you hear people say they come from out of town, they go straight to the ski hill, they leave again and they never turn off the highway.
“So that was a big goal – to get people off the highway and to get them to understand that Highway 3 is not Fernie’s downtown, it’s actually a few blocks up and it’s pretty spectacular.”
In Vadnais’ first year with the Chamber, a survey of local businesses found many were struggling to recruit and retain staff. Employee retention remains an issue and addressing it is part of the Chamber’s strategic plan for the coming year, according to Vadnais.
Last month she attended a University of Lethbridge job fair to promote employment opportunities in Fernie and the Elk Valley.
“It was a problem in 2015, it was a bigger problem in 2018, so staffing is a challenge and tied to that is housing,” she said. “It’s not necessarily that we don’t have low income or affordable housing, we have no housing.
“If we find all these people to come work here, where are they going to live? The two are tied very close together.It’s good that Fernie Family Housing has their project that’s on the go. Hopefully we can see that break ground sooner than later.
“The challenge is will we have enough staff to deal with the growth opportunities that are in front of us? I don’t know the answer to that.”
With strong mining and tourism sectors, and more expected growth, Vadnais said the community should be looking at what’s next.
She believes economic diversification is key to Fernie’s future.
“Fernie’s opportunity is to say we need another industry here, what is it? What are our strengths, what have we already got that we can build on and grow, so that we continue to support mining, we continue to support tourism, but we’ve got a third and a fourth and a fifth industry coming in to sustain that if any of the two strong ones take a dip,” she said.
Vadnais will join North Coal’s Sparwood office as Communications Lead Executive Assistant.
The company is going through the environmental assessment process for its Michel Coal Project, which proposes to develop three metallurgical coal deposits covering 8000ha near Sparwood.
“I like challenges, I like problem solving, and we’ve got a lot of systems and processes set up here at the Chamber,” said Vadnais.
“I could have had a lot more fun doing it for another 10 years but this opportunity presented itself, and I thought I’m going to take this and I’m going to take on a new challenge and try another role.”
Vadnais revealed what she will miss most about the Chamber.
“I will miss the people, I’ll miss hearing their success stories,” she said. “There are some amazing people doing amazing things in this town and it’s fun to see their creativity and their ingenuity.
“Something that we’ve learned… is that people are in Fernie because they want to be in Fernie, and then they figure out a way to make it work. It’s neat to figure out the ways that they’ve made it work. Thank you to all the businesses for letting me serve them and work with them, and their willingness to talk to us when we call or when we knock on their door and say ‘how are things going’.
“They’ve been very generous with their time and that’s been much appreciated.”