Comox Valley Regional District offices now located on Harmston Avenue in Courtenay | George Le Masurier photo
CVRD initiates discussions about Economic Development Society reforms
Directors of the Comox Valley Regional District have initiated discussions to explore new models for delivering economic development, destination marketing and Visitor Center operations that could potentially realign the Comox Valley Economic Development Society, or even replace it.
It will be the first time in the society’s 32-year history that regional directors have considered reviewing the original model of an arms-length society governed by an independently chosen board of directors.
The consideration was reached toward the end of a two-day workshop held Oct. 13-14 at the regional district’s new offices on Harmston Avenue in Courtenay. The session was facilitated by an outside consultant after conflicting visions for CVEDS’ future had brought the board to a stalemate.
The CVRD created the Economic Development Society in 1988 and continues to fund it. In recent years, CVEDS has received more than $1.2 million per year from Comox Valley taxpayers.
But it had become apparent over several years that CVEDS had lost the trust of some elected officials as well as individuals, nonprofit organizations and businesses across sectors of the Comox Valley.
CVRD directors seeking change from CVEDS have mentioned the need for more accountability, transparency, especially in financial matters, and whether the society’s recent activities still remain relevant and consistent with the Comox Valley community’s environmental and social values.
During the workshop, Area A Director Daniel Arbour noted that four out of the five Comox Valley jurisdictions funding CVEDS had “at one time or another” considered reviewing or withdrawing their participation, for various reasons.
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He was referring to his own electoral area, Area B, the Town of Comox and the city of Courtenay as those who have at least thought about withdrawing. Electoral Area C is the fifth participant currently funding CVEDS.
Any electoral area or municipality can opt-out of CVEDS participation by giving six months notice. That is still an option under the new contract signed in July. But it is less likely in the near future considering the new agreement expires in two years, on Dec. 31, 2022, and the possibility that regional directors might agree on some reforms.
The Village of Cumberland withdrew support for CVEDS in 2015 and hired its own economic development officer. That became a trend on Vancouver Island as other regional districts and municipalities moved toward new models that separated destination marketing activities from economic development services.
The CVRD’s consideration of new models would presumably explore whether to handle the three key functions of CVEDS — economic development, destination marketing and Visitor Information Centre management — with in-house staff or to contract for them with an external entity, or some hybrid combination.
Workshop facilitator Gordon Macintosh, the former Islands Trust executive director, urged CVRD directors to decide soon if they want to explore new models for delivering the services provided by CVEDS.
It was important, he said, for directors to reach consensus and to have preferred options in mind before having to give CVEDS notice of the regional district’s long-term intentions next December.
Directors did not take any formal action or vote during the workshop. It’s expected that will happen after CVRD Chief Administrative Officer Russell Dyson presents a staff report with recommendations to the board.
WORK PLAN CLARITY
While the second day of the workshop focused on developing a process for reconsidering the strategic future of the Comox Valley Economic Development Society, the first day was designed to give clarity to CVEDS’ 2021 work plan and how regional district directors would measure their success.
Meeting by themselves in the morning, CVRD directors created a list of topics directors would like CVEDS to consider adding into their 2021 work plan. A few CVEDS board members and Executive Director John Watson joined the workshop in the afternoon.
Most of the topics were related to a feeling that CVEDS activities should acknowledge the Comox Valley community’s values, and weave the regional board’s four core values into their business relationships:
- Reconciliation and First Nations relations;
- Financial responsibility;
- Climate change action; and,
- Community partnerships. And that they should weave these into their business relationships.
Asked to imagine their ideal economic development function, CVRD Board Chair Jesse Ketler said she envisioned a current and forward-thinking group that “was on top of the shift in societal values.”
“CVEDS was created in the 1980s when everyone was talking about deregulation and free-market capitalism. The only goal then was short-term profit and the result was social/wealth inequality and environmental degradation,” she said. “People now realize that we have to look at the long game and that sustainable businesses are those that consider environmental and social values.”
Ketler said businesses that included social and environmental values into their business model were doing better through the COVID pandemic than those that didn’t.
“People want to be a part of something good. If we try to apply ‘80s style solutions to COVID-era problems we are doing the businesses in the Comox Valley a great disservice,” she said.
Courtenay City Councillor Wendy Morin added that “the polarization on the board, although appearing along political lines, is a simplistic view. Many of us see that economic development practice is shifting, regardless of the politics of the day.”
CVEDS has about six weeks to respond to those requests — either to agree to do them, ask for more resources in order to do them, or to defer them — before its 2021 work plan and accompanying budget receive final approval from the CVRD board.
The topics included: Childcare, event guide and promotion, E-marketplace feasibility, destination infrastructure, co-working spaces, green industry, an arts and culture plan and an agriculture plan.
Although the perspective on CVEDS differs among all 10 of the regional district directors, at their simplest they break down into two groups: those who are happy with the current CVEDS structure (Town of Comox, Area C) and those who are less happy (City of Courtenay, Area B and Area A).
Courtenay City Councillor Wendy Morin wondered how the board could overcome entrenched positions based on geographical self-interests.
“How do we get to some common ground when there is such a disconnect between the experiences of Comox and Courtenay in the level of response on pet projects,” she said at the workshop. “Why are some areas getting what they want (from CVEDS) and others are not? How are we going to satisfy all these interests on a regional level?”
Differing perspectives based on territory emerged clearly during a discussion on the importance of mountain biking to the Comox Valley economy.
Comox Councillor Ken Grant said he had trouble with CVEDS spending tax money to promote mountain biking because it benefits Cumberland, which doesn’t help fund CVEDS.
But several other directors said mountain biking benefits businesses across the whole Comox Valley, yet Cumberland bears the burden of maintaining and improving the infrastructure of the most popular trails that bring tourists to the community.
“I have trouble with that. Our marina is the biggest economic driver in the Comox Valley,” Grant said. “So we could ask for money for that, too? Not sure we want to go down that road.”
But Area B Director Arzeena Hamir pointed out that Comox is seeking help from CVEDS and other jurisdictions to build out more parking infrastructure at the Comox Airport.
Similar differences of opinion occurred during discussions on other topics.
Comox Mayor Russ Arnott said Comox business owners had no lack of confidence in CVEDS.
“I guess it depends on who you talk to,” he said.
Area C Director Edwin Grieve said he was troubled by the undercurrent that “something untoward is going on.”
“These people (CVEDS board members) stepped up as volunteers. It’s disrespectful. It’s why directors have resigned. We owe them an apology,” he said.
Chair Ketler talked about the need to “relocalize” the Comox Valley economy.
“One way to do that is through social procurement and supporting social enterprise,” she said.
ABOUT THE WORKSHOP
When CVRD directors failed to find agreement in March on what they wanted from their $1 million-plus funding of the Comox Valley Economic Development Society, regional district staff suggested a workshop designed to break the logjam. But the provincial lockdown to stop the spread of the COVID virus derailed those plans.
Board Chair Jesse Ketler revived the workshop idea this fall and Gordon Macintosh, president of the Local Government Leadership Institute and the former executive director of the Islands Trust, was hired to facilitate it.
It’s possible that Macintosh would return to help CVRD directors navigate through the process of exploring new models for providing economic development and destination marketing services, and how to manage the Visitor Information Center operations in the future. But directors have only initiated discussions so far and have not taken any official actions.
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