Don Descoteau/News Gazette staff Dec. 1

West Shore looks to help reignite region’s economic growth

Three largest municipalities will pay into new regional agency, Metchosin may be an island unto itself

A regional committee driven by a combination of the private and public sectors is moving forward in its bid to help rebuild Greater Victoria’s lagging economy and create more good jobs.

The fledgling South Vancouver Island Economic Development Association received the unofficial green light this week to continue its mandate of bringing together municipal governments, business and post-secondary institutions in a unified way to reverse the Capital Region’s slide from fourth in gross domestic product (GDP) growth in 2008 among Canada’s large metropolitan areas to 27th in 2013.

On Monday the District of Sooke’s council voted unanimously to support a motion to fund the new regional body, thus becoming the seventh of 13 Greater Victoria municipalities to do so. Langford, Colwood and View Royal councils have already done so, as have Victoria, Oak Bay and Sidney.

A simple majority assures the idea will move forward, said Dan Dagg, the association’s acting chair. He noted that the motion is being voted on at Highlands, Saanich, Esquimalt and Central Saanich next Monday (Dec. 7), and North Saanich on Dec. 14. Metchosin has voted against contributing to the agency.

“We’re reaching that snowball point,” Dagg said. “The thing I want people to keep remembering is seven is the bare minimum. We’ll be twice as good if everybody comes on. We want to continue to encourage those who haven’t quite come to the decision yet.”

While the Greater Victoria Development Agency, for which Dagg is a board chair, has been working for years to help bring new business to the region and strengthen its economic base, it took recognition of the stagnant growth rate for a new approach to be considered, he said. A workshop held last month for municipal politicians and senior staffers outlined the new strategy.

“There was a buzz within that room. People actually got goose bumps around the spirit of collaboration and goodwill amongst everybody – that’s new,” Dagg said. “This has never happened before where we’ve got such universal support from municipalities, all lined up to the right thing. There is a new spirit of collaboration in this region that’s going to benefit all of us.”

Among the benefits of working together, he said, is the ability to apply for larger government grants for regional projects, such as those addressing transportation, and a move toward attracting and keeping industries that provide “household-sustaining” jobs for local residents.

Colwood Mayor Carol Hamilton agreed that taking advantage of shared resources is a numbers game, to a certain degree.

“If we merge and pull together, will we be more successful in targeting some of those grant opportunities,” she said. She pointed to a GVDA estimate that under its current fragmented makeup, Greater Victoria municipalities receive a total of about $4 million annually from the federal Western Diversification program, which invests in initiatives that strengthen and enhance economic growth.

Given its total population of upwards of 380,000 the region could attract more like $10 million, just from that one source, Hamilton said. Regardless of the makeup of area municipalities, urban or rural, all can benefit from a team approach to economic development.

“I don’t think there’s a community in our region that is 100 per cent successful based only on (commercial and residential activities within) their own borders,” she said. “To me this is leadership at your municipal level, it’s not being driven by anybody else. Everybody’s concerned for their taxes, but if we can increase and benefit within our economic development, that translates into stability.”

Langford Mayor Stew Young and his council have long been known for their “get it done” mentality, opening doors for large retailers and residential developers to build in the city. Population growth, fuelled by an affordable home market, has kept the city growing, with numerous retailers and recreational services springing up or relocating here to meet the demand.

So how does this fast-growing city contribute more to the economic growth of the region? Young admitted that with residential construction filling in much of the vacant or repurposed land around the city, creating new industrial lands has not been the top priority for the municipality. Creating a business park area, however, has definitely been on its radar, with some areas of land up for consideration for such developments as high-tech or other industries.

Leigh Road, between Goldstream Avenue and the Trans Canada Highway has some vacant land, and Young said there may be potential opportunities along the yet-to-be constructed West Shore Parkway connector between Hwy. 1 and Sooke Road.

“We have to start looking at that now,” he said. “We as a community have to go hard and find industrial spaces … (such as a) 200- or 300-acre business park. We better start finding it before we lose the ability to do it.”

The new agency’s Funding Partner’s Council, due to meet again Dec. 11, not only has representation from municipalities, but from industry, Royal Roads University, the University of Victoria and Camosun College. The input of industry and post-secondary is crucial to moving forward in a meaningful and sustainable way, supporters say.

One of those people is View Royal Mayor David Screech. The creation of a truly regional agency, supported by the majority of municipalities and other funders who provide it with the resources to do the job right, is an important step toward keeping our talented people here, he said.

“We hear that the graduates of our post-secondary institutions are leaving the area because of the lack of jobs,” Screech said.

“If there was a wealthy investor, or even a high-tech company wanting to locate an office here … it makes perfect sense if we collectively have this organization (to smooth out the bumps). It’s going to make it easier for that company to relocate to our region.”

Collectively, the region has collectively put comparatively little toward economic development – the GVDA receives $80,000 a year. Most engage in the activity off the side of their desks or not at all, so it’s not surprising the region’s growth has slid. Screech noted that approximately .50 cents per person is designated for economic development in the region; that compares with over $4 a person in Nanaimo and Vancouver, our closest rivals for business.

The initial funding model for the new agency sees member municipalities contribute $1 per resident plus .07 per cent of property tax collected, which Dagg estimates at roughly $670,000 per year.

“It’s still not as much money as a lot of other cities are spending, but when you roll in the private sector … it’s a giant leap forward from the $80,000 we’re getting now,” he said.

The interim committee members and GVDA staff are working on a five-year economic development strategy, working with industry and education experts and making themselves aware of upcoming project grant application deadlines.

Dagg suggested that the goal of the new agency is not to simply help facilitate service industry growth to meet increases in population, but to create an atmosphere where it makes sense to do business in Greater Victoria.

“We’re all about attracting and creating household-sustaining jobs,” he said.

“We’re not looking to create a bunch of minimum-wage coffee shop jobs, we’re looking to grow industries that require skilled workers, (businesses) that are clean and environmentally sensitive and pay good wages. We want people to have careers.”

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