Exterior of the Visitors Centre managed by the Comox Valley Economic Development Society / George Le Masurier
Comox Valley regional directors will decide fate of Economic Development Society
The first in a series about the Comox Valley Economic Development Society
Sometime early next year, the Comox Valley Regional District board will decide whether to renew its five-year, $1.2 million annual contract with the Comox Valley Economic Development Society.
As part of its decision-making process, the board will review an independent report on whether the society has fulfilled the current contract signed in 2015. It will also review and either approve or disapprove of the society’s latest five-year strategic plan.
The nonprofit society, commonly known as CVEDS, has strong supporters and outspoken critics across many sectors of the community for both the value of its work and for the arms-length organizational model under which it operates.
Depending on your point of view, that model either frees economic development from political interference and has stood the test of time or it lacks financial oversight, public accountability and transparency. CVEDS either does great work or it creates events simply to get funding with little concern for their outcomes. It has either built valuable partnerships or it has burned too many bridges within the community.
And although the regional district’s original agreement with CVEDS was for the provision of economic development services, it now specifies that nearly two-thirds of local taxpayer funding ($750,126 in 2019) be directed toward operation of a Visitor’s Centre and destination marketing activities.
That has raised concern among some about how much economic development work CVEDS actually does or whether it primarily produces and promotes tourism events.
And that, in turn, opens debate about how promotion of lower-paying tourism jobs raises the level of a community’s economic health and sustainability.
To help the regional directors make their decision, a Vancouver consulting group, Explore Solutions, is currently doing a review of whether CVEDS has met its contractual obligations.
But there are issues beyond the terms of its contract with the CVRD, which expires next year on March 31. Directors also have the difficult and perhaps political task of determining whether their constituents have — or, perceive to have — received sufficient value for their million-plus tax investment.
That evaluation is not within the scope of the current contract performance review.
But it was addressed in a similar independent review commissioned by the CVRD in 2014.
“It is not so much that CVEDS is not meeting its contractual requirements … it might not be meeting them in a way that is entirely satisfactory to significant segments of the community,” wrote Urbanics Consultants in 2014.
CVEDS Executive Director John Watson acknowledges that issue.
“We won’t do everything for everybody,” he told Decafnation recently. “The board decides our strategic vision and local governments approve it. Not everyone will be happy with the decisions of government.”
So it will depend on nine regional directors from Courtenay, Comox and the three electoral areas to decide whether the Economic Development Society has done enough for the sustainable economic prosperity of the Comox Valley to warrant a new contract. Cumberland has opted out of CVEDS funding and has no vote
And it is these regional directors who must conclude whether the CVEDS board has provided an acceptable level of oversight and public accountability to earn not just local tax dollars, but also the public’s trust.
The directors have many options open to them. They could ask for structural changes in the society. They could decide to take the service in-house as most surrounding municipalities have done. And they could debate whether a different organizational model would better serve the separate needs of economic development and tourism.
Whatever it decides, the regional board’s course of action seems almost certain to be controversial.
Directors’ views differ
The Economic Development Society is funded by taxpayers in Courtenay, Comox and the three rural electoral areas, and managed by a board of 11-voting directors plus non-voting representatives from each participating electoral area or municipality. Its contract with the regional district is to provide economic development services, destination marketing for tourism and management of the regional Visitors Centre.
The Village of Cumberland withdrew from participation in CVEDS services in 2016 because it saw little return on their investment.
All candidates running for office in the village’s 2014 municipal election supported withdrawing from the regional service. There was consensus among the candidates that CVEDS had done nothing to help develop the village’s industrial lands, despite the fact that Cumberland has the most industrial-zoned property available in the Comox Valley.
“Cumberland hadn’t been happy for a long time,” Village Mayor Leslie Baird told Decafnation. “We weren’t being recognized, and looking at the money we paid in per capita, we understood there was better value going on our own.”
Baird also saw CVEDS as evolving into an event production company, which she doesn’t believe has value for economic development. And, she said, the society’s destination marketing activities mainly promote hotels, which Cumberland doesn’t have.
Area A Director Daniel Arbour agrees on that point.
“The destination marketing function is focused on Courtenay and Comox. It has no value for rural areas or the shellfish industry,” he told Decafnation. “But it seems to be the biggest aspect of their (CVEDS) work.”
Arbour, a Hornby Island resident with a background in economic development, said his area’s workforce is powered by shellfish, forestry, retirement and commuters.
He thinks the BC Seafood Festival, which is CVEDS’s single largest initiative held in June, possibly generates tourism in the shoulder season. But, he said, “the tactic is not the goal.”
“A measurable end goal is whether there’s an increase in licenses in Baynes Sound. The goal is to increase GDP and maintain the viability of the industry,” he said. “The shellfish industry is not growing. Growth in Area A will come from the developments in Union Bay.”
Asked whether he considers the current CVEDS arms-length organizational model as the best for delivering economic development services, Arbour said every model will have its pros and cons.
“But they all should have measurable outcomes determined by community engagement,” he said. “It would be better if the CVRD and CVEDS worked together on a strategic plan.”
The current process is for the CVEDS board and staff to create a strategic plan and present it to the CVRD board for approval or disapproval.
After the 2014 performance review of CVEDS, Area C Director Edwin Grieve said, “We need to see improved transparency, public consultation and communication.”
He thinks those corrections have been made.
“Historic oversight concerns from 10 years ago may have been the result of lack of interest or engagement by CVEDS members,” he told Decafnation. “It is proven that leaving any staff without clear direction, they usually develop their own.”
Grieve said, to misquote John Lennon, “The community you take is equal to the community you make.”
Grieve says the advantage of the current arms-length model allows the Economic Development Society to take full advantage of grant funding opportunities that are unavailable to municipalities and regional districts.
“It currently leverages about a dollar for every dollar,” he said. “It also helps that this separation (from politics) insulates the body from the temptation to constantly change directions due to political interference.”
Area B Director Arzeena Hamir is an organic farmer and owner of Amara Farms in Merville who got into agriculture to do economic development overseas, which she did in Thailand, India and Bangladesh.
She supports a grassroots approach to economic development that involves finding out the needs of local businesses and addressing them. But she says CVEDS doesn’t always do it that way. And she references a $35,000 Request for Proposal to develop a strategic plan that included robotics, genomics and artificial intelligence in agriculture.
“What farmer in the Comox Valley said they needed that?” she told Decafnation. “Not surprisingly, the consultant who filled that contract spent very little time on robotics, genomics or AI.”
Hamir also thinks CVEDS has become an event management company. And she wonders if that focus can create the economic outcomes the Comox Valley expects?
For example, she points to the annual Farm Cycle Tour as an example of a CVEDS initiative that doesn’t translate into large economic benefits for farmers.
“I myself, and the farmers I’ve spoken to, do not benefit long-term from the Cycle Farm Tour. It’s an education and outreach day. Our customers are not out-of-town tourists. It takes a full day away from farming to give away samples, but make few sales. We lose money,” she told Decafnation.
If CVEDS really wanted to develop the agriculture economy, she says they would bring around chefs or food buyers who might become regular volume buyers. Or, she says they could start buying local food for the Seafood Festival.
“Is it our own seafood that makes the Comox Valley special? Otherwise, you could do it anywhere,” she said. “Highlighting local food at the Seafood Festival would be a form of economic development.”
Paul Ives, the former Comox mayor and a long-time director on the CVEDS board,
told Decafnation that at one time CVEDS was doing nothing for the Town of Comox.
“Then I got involved and together we created the marina improvements, and now the development of the airport lands,” he said. “It’s incumbent on elected officials to participate and see what they can achieve.”
Ives also credits CVEDS, and Watson in particular, with pulling the recent Comox Mall renovation together. There was a point when the town and the new owners weren’t on the same page, and Watson stepped in to work out the differences, according to Ives.
Ives says the arms-length society model has worked and “stood the test of time.”
Courtenay City Councillor Melanie McCollum isn’t convinced.
“Economic development and destination marketing delivered as regional services is a good approach for our community – however, I’m not convinced that having these two things delivered under one contract is the best model,” she told Decafnation. “CVEDS has very limited staff capacity, and is providing a lot of event planning, which is destination marketing, but the work being done on economic development is less obvious and not as well communicated to the public.”
McCollum, who is Courtenay’s delegate to the CVEDS board, hears from people who would like to see more emphasis on supporting industry sectors that provide higher paying jobs, such as technology and education.
Next: The history of the Comox Valley Economic Development Society and what they do today
THE CVEDS CONTRACT RENEWAL PROCESS
The five-year agreement with CVEDS differs from other CVRD contracts for services. Because the regional district created the nonprofit society through Bylaw 345, the agreement for economic development services is not open to competitive bids. There is no Request for Proposal issued and the CVRD does not consider proposals from any other individuals or companies.
On June 1, the CVRD provided a letter to CVEDS that it would enter into negotiations for a potential five-year renewal of the contract after it receives the society’s new strategic plan on Oct. 31 and following an independent contract performance review due by Dec. 31.
However, the letter did not commit the CVRD to a new agreement, according to Scott Smith, the regional district’s general manager of planning and development services branch.
But Smith also confirmed that the CVRD has no Plan B. There is no parallel process underway to investigate alternate models of providing economic development services should negotiations with CVEDS not result in a renewed contract.
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