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Regional District terminates CVEDS contract, opposing views were too entrenched
This story was updated March 2 to include a reaction from Area C Director Edwin Grieve. Comox Councillor Ken Grant and Comox Mayor Russ Arnott did not respond.
After almost a year of public discussions, in-camera meetings and mediated workshops that were often divisive, the Comox Valley Regional District will terminate its contract with the Comox Valley Economic Development Society on Aug. 26.
In an email to CVEDS Chair Deana Simkin sent Feb. 25, board Chair Jesse Ketler said the regional district was invoking Section 22 of the current service agreement signed just seven months ago on July 27. The section provides for early termination of the contract with six months notice.
A press release issued by the regional district this morning made the termination public knowledge.
The 33-year-old Economic Development Society will now almost certainly fold without a contract that provided local public funding in excess of $1.2 million annually in recent years in exchange for economic development and destination marketing services, and management of the Visitor’s Centre.
In this morning press release, Chief Administrative officer Russell Dyson said, “the CVRD with their municipal partners (City of Courtenay and Town of Comox) will continue reviewing the economic development service to provide a path forward on how economic development will be delivered within the region.”
One possible path that Comox Council has already discussed is for the town to hire its own economic development officer, as Cumberland did in 2016. Comox could still continue to participate in regional funding for destination marketing and Visitors Centre management.
Regional directors made the decision to terminate the contract at an in-camera session following the Feb. 9 full board meeting, which had become heated over the Economic Development Society’s 2021 work plan and budget.
The Comox Town Council has been at odds with the majority of regional district directors over how to manage the CVEDS contract and over its fundamentally opposing view about what constitutes economic development.
The board majority comprising directors from Courtenay and Electoral Areas A and B have pressed to make CVEDS more financially accountable and to modernize its view of what drives the local economy.
Comox Director Ken Grant made the Town Council’s position crystal clear at the Feb. 9 meeting.
“With all the angst around this, I don’t see any way how this relationship with CVEDS can continue,” he said. “So it’s time to cut our ties with CVEDS and stop pouring good money after bad.”
He said the society’s 2021 workplan included seven projects specifically requested by the board “that, in my opinion” have nothing to do with economic development. That’s taking us down a road our community really isn’t interested in.”
Those seven items included, among others, efforts to help create broader access to child care to enable women to return or enter the workforce and addressing the need for affordable housing to accommodate employees of local businesses.
Grant said the regional board has been “interjecting our decisions into their board … in an independent governance model you don’t get to tell them how to do their business,” he said. “That’s been the problem from day one.”
NOBODY WAS HAPPY
Comox Town Council wasn’t happy with the board’s new vision for economic development. The board majority wasn’t happy with how CVEDS operated, especially its lack of transparency and what it considered an outdated approach.
It appears both sides had become tired of the conflict.
Some observers believe Comox developed its own economic development strategy last year when the differences of opinion looked irreconcilable and they didn’t have the votes to prevail.
Town Chief Administration Officer Jordan Wahl recently spoke about hiring its own economic development officer as Cumberland did after withdrawing from the regional service five years
The town hired Lara Greasley, former CVEDS marketing manager, last year and now there is speculation they might hire CVEDS executive director John Watson.
That would leave Courtenay and the electoral areas to form their own economic development plan.
But there might still be room for a regional-wide destination marketing service and management of the Visitor’s Centre, both of which are currently under contract with Tourism Vancouver Island.
REACTION TO THE TERMINATION
Area A Director Daniel Arbour said the ongoing service review will allow the municipalities and rural areas to discuss how to support economic development in each respective community. He said it’s clear there are a variety of needs, some which may be best addressed in each jurisdiction, and some through regional collaboration.
“For Area A, CVEDS has worked primarily on the promotion of the shellfish sector for years. Without CVEDS, as chair of the Baynes Sound Ecosystem Forum, and AVICC local government representative on shellfish issues, I look forward to continue to grow the relationship with the businesses, BC Shellfish Association, and K’omoks First Nation on the promotion of sustainability initiatives in and around Baynes Sound,” he told Decafnation.
“Ultimately, in the years ahead, the most important economic consideration in Area A will be to properly manage growth in and around Union Bay, and to make thoughtful decisions around infrastructure requirements and integrated community planning,” he said.
Area B Director Arzeena Hamir said she has been advocating for more support for the farming sector ever since she was elected in 2018.
“Supporting farmers to increase their incomes per acre and create a vibrant food economy has always been at the forefront of my asks of our Economic Development Service. I hope to continue pushing for that,” she told Decafnation.
“I do also support more childcare places and I do see the direct connection between the vitality of the workforce and the ability of that workforce to return to work without having to worry about who is taking care of their kids,” she said.
Hamir added that she is looking forward to a transformed Economic Development Service.
“It’s been a long haul. We did try to work with CVEDS under the new contract but I felt we weren’t getting the deliverables we agreed to and CVEDS continued to make decisions (like the contract to Tourism Vancouver Island) without even informing the CVRD in advance,” she said.
Area C Director Edwin Grieve thanked the “incredible list” of volunteers who stepped up and donated so much of their time and expertise to serve on the CVEDS board. He noted past presidents Richard Hardy, Ian Whitehead, Justin Rigsby, Deana Simpkin. He also gave recognition to John Watson and Geoff, Lara, Arron and others from the staff that worked magic and doubled every public dollar.
“In this, as in so many Comox Valley endeavours, it was the volunteers, societies and not-for-profits that made this such a great place to live,” he told Decafnation.
It was the Comox Council that unanimously voted to request a formal review of the economic development service. That review with a hired consultant began on Jan. 17 but has so far resulted in only one in-camera meeting, which primarily focused on the process and procedures for the review.
The next meeting of the review committee is scheduled for mid-March but does not appear on the regional district’s website because they have closed the meetings to the public.
The review committee comprises representatives from Courtenay, Comox, the three electoral areas and the regional board chair.
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A changing political climate that brought new faces and fresh perspectives to the Comox Valley Regional District boardroom has thrust the three-decade-old Comox Valley Economic Development Society into an uncertain future.
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