The continuous search for qualified labour and transportation issues, but also a more collaborative spirit among elected officials defined the business environment on the Saanich Peninsula in 2019.
Denny Warner, executive director of Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, made those observations in a year-end-interview with the Peninsula News Review, during which she also previewed plans to expand the chamber’s information centre located at Sidney’s northern entrance.
Warner said the collegiality of the three mayors elected in 2019 — Cliff McNeil-Smith in Sidney, replacing incumbent Steve Price, Geoff Orr in North Saanich replacing retiring Alice Finall, and re-elected Ryan Windsor in Central Saanich — has benefited the regional business community.
“There has been a lot more sharing and planning,” she said. “We have really appreciated that.”
Warner said their respective elections said the tone for what has been a very positive 2019.
“We have had really good participation in our events [like the 2019 Crystal Awards],” she said. “Our membership levels are strong, and we have a lot of people coming out to events and I hear – more so than what I have heard from other chambers – the things we do are fun. That is maybe the difference.”
The region represented by the chamber may also end up at the winning end of a competition to host the new Vancouver Island office for Export Development Canada (EDC), a financially self-sustaining” Crown corporation that serves as an export credit agency, providing various types of financial services to Canadian exporters, investors and their international buyers. The company also supports direct Canadian investment abroad and foreign investment into Canada.
The Saanich Peninsula houses many specialized companies in the fields of aviation and aquatic technology with global markets.
But if the possible arrival of a powerful support agency speaks to the potential of the region, local businesses, regardless of size and nature, are struggling to attract qualified employees, an issue compounded by transportation issues in the region.
While this year’s announcement for a $44-million “flyover” overpass at Keating Cross Road will make a big difference for a major economic engine, more work needs to be done on improving transit connectivity, said Warner.
“The bus system doesn’t work for a lot of people who come out here to work,” she said.
Warner said the big project for 202o is upgrading the existing visitors information centre and adding a truck stop behind the centre in collaboration with multiple organizations and agencies, including First Nations.
“Those are really important to us, because we have such a woeful space to welcome visitors to the gateway of Vancouver Island, and also because there is just nowhere for trucks to park,” she said. “That is a huge issue for our economy, when everything we receive here on the Island comes by truck. We need to have a better place to accommodate trucks.”
Current plans for what Warner called a “substantially larger” building with two floors rather than one, said Warner, adding that it would incorporate many First Nations elements.
“We have talked WSÁNEC Leadership Council people and they are very excited about having some interpretive elements,” she said. The new facility would also dedicate some space for showcasing First Nations culture, as well as Indigenous flora and fauna, she added.
The centre would also include a lounge for truck drivers, she said.
Key details of the expansion including costs and construction start remain up in the air. The chamber has not yet costed out the project, because of a major hurdle: the centre lies inside the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). The provincial government — which actually owns the property on which the centre stands — plans to submit an ALR removal application to District of North Saanich. “We have had early indications that they would be supportive of it, but it is really up to ALC to decide whether or not to go forward, and they have made some surprising decisions recently,” said Warner. “So it’s not a done deal.”
Experience shows that this process can take a long time, said Warner, when asked about the earliest possible construction start, assuming approval from the ALC. “Once we have approval to remove [the lot from the ALR], we have to get some funding in place and figure out the partnerships,” she said, adding that some trucking companies have already shown in partnering up with the chamber. “So it is looking very positive for that, but it is quite different when you actually go out and get the funding.”
Overall, the chamber hopes to complete that project by late 2021.
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