Goose Spit at twilight: is this the calm before another pandemic storm?
No CV economic recovery plan yet, lack of destination marketing raises concerns
Almost seven months ago, the BC government ordered a lockdown of all but essential businesses and asked residents to stay home in hopes of flattening the curve of new COVID-19 virus infections.
By the time in-province travel restrictions were eased in June as part of BC’s Restart Plan some Comox Valley businesses had permanently closed their doors. Some were already struggling and the loss of several months revenue had sealed their fate. Others simply saw future difficulties that they no longer had the enthusiasm to endure.
On April 9, just weeks after the initial lockdown, the Comox Valley Regional District initiated the formation of an ad hoc Economic Recovery Task Force (ERTF).
Five elected officials and representatives from K’omoks First Nation (KFN), CFB Comox and the Comox Valley Economic Development Society vowed to create business case action plans for each industry sector “to help the Comox Valley business community and sectors recover and adapt, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.”
As of this week, the ERTF has not announced any action plans.
“We’re behind the eight-ball compared to some areas”
Courtenay Mayor Bob Wells, who co-chairs the ERTF with KFN Chief Nicole Rempel, told Decafnation that the task force’s major action to date has been to collect information and recommendations from each sector of the local business community via a short survey. The responses would then be used to create the business case action plans.
On Sept. 9, Wells said the information gathering from various business sectors hadn’t been completed and wouldn’t be for several more months.
“We’re behind the eight-ball compared to some areas,” he said. “But we’re still building this ship as it’s sailing.”
The delay has irked some hospitality-related business owners, such as Old House Hotel and Spa manager David Rooper. He had hoped there would be a PR and communication plan in place by now, complete with messaging on the Comox Valley’s efforts to support its key industries.
“Exactly what good is a report or action plan months from now, unless the pandemic accelerates,” Rooper told Decafnation.
A LACK OF COMMUNICATION
Other business sectors have echoed concerns about a lack of communication from the task force.
“It’s very puzzling,” said Comox Valley Airport Market Development Manager Erin Neely.
She was told a transportation sector task force was going to meet regularly, perhaps weekly. But the group met only once, and she hasn’t heard from the destination marketing arm of the Comox Valley Economic Development Society since the pandemic began.
“I don’t know how they’re going to do a recovery plan without any meetings,” she told Decafnation. “I’m confused.”
The tourism sector has similar concerns.
An April 9 mass email from the CVEDS office to the Comox Valley’s tourism sector, said the ERTF was “… establishing a new Tourism Response and Recovery Task Force to help guide the critical planning, supports and programs needed to assist our local tourism and hospitality sector.”
“The buck stops at the regional district …They oversee CVEDS.”
The email said the group would include anyone from the existing Destination Marketing Advisory Committee (DMAC) and “will likely” meet weekly or bi-weekly in the early stages.
But DMAC members say this group has never met, leaving hospitality businesses out of the loop and troubled by the lack of communication to stakeholders.
Electoral Area B Director Arzeena Hamir isn’t sure whether the tourism task force has had a meeting.
“I got an invitation (to a meeting) but when I got to the Zoom waiting room, they wouldn’t let me in,” she told Decafnation. “I’m not sure what happened there and nobody at CVEDS has returned my emails about it.”
Adding to its communication issues, the ERTF has so far refused to make the minutes of its meetings available to the public.
Task Force Co-Chair Wells released some minutes of ERTF meetings during an August presentation to the regional district board, but meeting agendas and minutes are not posted on the CVRD or CVEDS websites.
“I’m not sure how public that is,” Wells said, referring to the task force’s list of recommendations from individual businesses as well as minutes of its meetings.
WHERE’S THE MONEY?
Of greater concern to local tourism-dependent businesses, including the Comox Valley Airport, is the disappearance of the Destination Marketing Advisory Committee, which has not met since March 12.
This has meant no promotion to help area hotels and restaurants recover losses incurred during the initial three-month lockdown, even though the DMAC has industry and public funds in its coffers that are supposed to be spent on marketing the Comox Valley.
When BC Medical Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced a program for “Smart and Safe Travel” within the province in late June, other communities, such as Campbell River and Tofino, began actively promoting their regions.
The Comox Valley Record recently published advertising luring people to downtown Parksville.
But Comox Valley hotels and tourist destinations, such as Mt. Washington and Crown Isle, have been left to do their own marketing.
“It’s a conversation that needs to be had,”
To promote tourism in the Comox Valley, the Economic Development Society’s destination marketing committee receives about $300,000 annually, in a normal year, from the two percent Municipal Regional District Tax, commonly called the hotel tax.
CVEDS also collects about $200,000 in matching funds from Destination BC, and additional funding from provincial and federal governments for tourism marketing, as well as about $250,000 for marketing from the CVRD.
The Destination Marketing Advisory Committee plans advertising and communication plans with input from stakeholders, such as hotels and restaurants.
When the pandemic hit, the province said hospitality businesses that pay into the hotel tax could defer their contributions until Sept. 30, 2020, although the tax was not forgiven. They still had to collect and submit the full amount by the end of this month.
But marketing funds contributed by properties that did not defer their contributions were distributed as usual to the sanctioned Destination Marketing Office, which is Comox Valley Economic Development Society.
So the destination marketing division of CVEDS should have an additional sizable pool of new money in October. The province distributes hotel tax funds to marketing agencies during the third week of every month.
“So where’s the money?,” Rooper said. “What’s it being spent on? Why aren’t we spending it right now to market the Comox Valley?”
At the Comox Valley Airport, Neely said she would “love to see the shoulder season marketed.”
Crown Isle Resort General Manager Bill Kelly thinks the decision whether to spend money now to promote the off-season or to save it for a bigger push in 2021 should be made by the members of the DMAC.
“It’s a conversation that needs to be had,” he told Decafnation.
WHO’S IN CHARGE?
The last official Destination Marketing Advisory Committee meeting occurred on March 12, six days before the pandemic lockdown.
In an email response to a request for an interview in August, DMAC Chair Bill Anglin referred Decafnation to ERTF co-chairs Wells and Rempel.
“As far as the DMAC is concerned given the current situation with COVID-19, it has (to) be repurposed for the time being and its members have been supporting the mandate of the Economic Recovery Task Force,” Anglin wrote.
That was news to Wells who said the ERTF has nothing to do with destination marketing and that it has given no direction to the DMAC.
Comox Valley Regional District Board Chair Jesse Ketler, who is also a member of the ERTF, said the task force has no direct control over decisions made by the DMAC including what to do with past funds or whether to hold a meeting or not.
“That is not to say that we are not working together, as some of the hoteliers on DMAC are also part of the tourism industry subcommittee and we, ERTF steering committee, will help make industry decisions based on their recommendations in the near future,” she told Decafnation.
Businesses shouldn’t expect property tax forgiveness
Ketler believes the DMAC went into a temporary holding pattern when the province implemented its initial travel restrictions.
Anglin did not say who directed him to “repurpose” the DMAC or exactly what that means.
And he stopped responding to Decafnation when asked follow-up questions about how DMAC members were supporting the ERTF mandate and why the DMAC stopped meeting.
None of this makes sense to stakeholders on the DMAC. They say the DMAC was a functioning group and wonder why any economic recovery plan wouldn’t want it to continue marketing the Comox Valley as a destination for in-province travel?
Airport Development Manager Erin Neely is concerned about the money collected from Destination BC and other sources, including local accommodation businesses, prior to the pandemic.
“I don’t know where that stands, and there’s nobody to enquire with,” she told Decafnation. “But from a development perspective, I’d love to see the shoulder seasons marketed.”
Neely would normally work with Lara Greasly, who was CVEDS destination marketing officer before leaving for a job at the Town of Comox. As a backup, Neely would work with Tansy Pauls. But she has left, too, for a job at the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Without a functioning destination marketing office locally, Neely says she’s waiting for an update from the Economic Recovery Task Force.
“I think the buck stops at the regional district,” she said. “They oversee CVEDS.”
WHAT CAN THE ERTF DO?
CVRD Chair Jesse Ketler said the ERTF was formed in the spirit of putting directors diverse opinions on the future of the Comox Valley Economic Development Society aside and focusing on how to provide help for businesses and people.
“Eventually the handouts from provincial and federal governments will stop. Hopefully, before that time, we’ll know what is needed and we’ll have the direction from the industry-prepared reports of how to help people,” she said.
Wells said the ERTF has two roles. One is to advocate for Comox Valley businesses through letters to senior governments and via meetings with MPs and MLAs. The other is to follow up on the business case actions plans that are eventually coming.
“The ERTF doesn’t have any authority or power to enforce anything,” he said. “It will be up to the individual municipalities to do that, to change policy.”
But Wells did caution that there will be no forgiveness on property taxes because that comprises 90 percent of municipal revenue and by BC law local governments cannot run deficits.
He said the ERTF would be looking at the recommendations from each sector soon “to see if there were some quick wins” before the action plans rollout.
THE TASK FORCE?
Hegus (Chief) Councillor Nicole Rempel, K’omoks First Nation
Courtenay Mayor Bob Wells
Cumberland Mayor Leslie Baird
Comox (then) Acting Mayor Ken Grant
CVRD Chair Jesse Ketler
Electoral Services Commission Chair Edwin Grieve
Andrea Dawe of CFB Comox
CVEDS Chair Deana Simkin
CV HOTEL STAYS UP,
LONGER DESPITE CVEDS
Prior to the pandemic lockdown in mid-March, 2020 was shaping up to be the best year ever in the hospitality industry.
After COVID wiped out April and May, tourists started coming back in June and in greater numbers during July. In August, local hotels had a record-setting month, reaching an occupancy rate of 90 percent, while the provincial average was about 30 percent to 50 percent occupancy.
Vancouver Island generally is showing occupancy rates in the high 30 percentile.
Despite the pandemic, 2020 overall Comox Valley occupancy levels for the year to date are roughly 60 percent. And the average length of stay has increased over last year due to people choosing to stay in one location rather than travelling around.
The overall year to date occupancy rate at the same time last year was only slightly higher at 74 per cent.
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