Second in a series about the Comox Valley Economic Development Society
In 1988, the Comox Valley’s economic boom created by expansion of the Alberta oil fields and direct Westjet flights to Calgary had not yet occurred. The migration of Hong Kong residents to Vancouver that would indirectly drive Comox Valley population growth and inflated real estate values was still a decade away. And the now internationally-owned Mt. Washington Alpine Resort was less than 10 years old and not yet well-known beyond Vancouver Island.
So a group of elected officials at the time saw an urgent need to drive economic growth. To do that they created the Comox Valley Economic Development Society, known as CVEDS.
The society was originally overseen by a board of six directors (it recently expanded to 11 positions) and operates with a full-time staff of five. The board meets five times a year.
It was created by Comox Valley Regional District bylaw 345 (updated in 2016) to “encourage the responsible expansion of the Comox Valley economic base as well as enhance wealth and employment opportunities.”
That was 31 years ago. Today, the scope of CVEDS services has radically changed.
“Economic development is just one of the many services provided by local government. We work with various departments in the municipalities. We’re inter-related. It’s all part of one mandate, different components of the same thing.” — CVEDS Executive Director John Watson
What began as an organization providing strictly economic development services has grown into something different.
In 2007, CVEDS swallowed up regional destination marketing responsibilities and forced the closure of Comox Valley Tourism, a 22-year-old member-based organization of hospitality professionals. In 2012, it also took over visitor services and management of regional Visitor’s Centre from the Comox Valley and Cumberland Chambers of Commerce.
And along with those responsibilities came new public funding.
CVEDS received the funding previously allocated for those organizations. And in 2012 when a two percent hotel room tax was implemented to boost tourism by putting “heads in beds” — known officially as the Municipal and Regional District Tax, or MRDT — those funds also went to the Economic Development Society.
Once established as the Comox Valley’s official tourism marketing entity, CVEDS became the repository for provincial and federal funding, and tourism-related grants from other sources.
Local governments established Comox Valley Tourism in 1986 to promote and facilitate tourism activities, and for years the organization functioned with only membership revenues and part-time staff. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that CVT started to receive public funding.
In 2002, the Comox Valley Committee of the then Comox-Strathcona Regional District board decided to streamline its grant approval process. They opted to merge funding applications from tourism promotion, economic development and Visitor Centres into a single package. They paid the Economic Development Society about $10,000 per year to collect and submit the various funding requests, and then distribute the approved funds to the appropriate groups.
But five years later, the CVEDS board had other ideas.
On Dec. 6, 2007, CVEDS announced that it would assume the mandate for destination marketing services as of Jan. 1, 2008, and would no longer distribute any CVRD funds to Comox Valley Tourism.
That decision instantly became controversial.
From 2001 to 2004, Dennis Strand, a former Comox Councillor, chaired the regional committee that oversaw funding for tourism, economic development, chambers of commerce and Denman and Hornby Island tourism.
In an op-ed newspaper article published on Dec. 21, 2007, Strand argued that it was never the intention of his committee to merge economic development with destination marketing for tourism.
He said CVEDS responsibility was to consolidate the budgets to save time and to later distribute the “funds fairly and equitably only, not to cut funds … and then suggest they merge.”
“Does (CVEDS) have justification to make these sweeping changes because the political appointees vote a certain way at the (CVEDS) board level? The answer is unequivocally no,” Strand wrote.
The CV Tourism board opposed the takeover, arguing in a letter to its members that “an independent destination marketing organization focused solely on destination marketing would best be able to provide this service to the Comox Valley.” Their protest received wide-spread support from the local tourism industry that still lingers today.
But the fight was already lost.
A vote later by the new Comox Valley Regional District — in 2008 the Comox-Strathcona Regional District was split into two entities — formalized an agreement with CVEDS for all three services.
Marty Douglas, the last chair of the Comox Valley Tourism board that oversaw its demise, said in 2007 that, “There has to be an organization that is solely committed to tourism and not fragmented into other areas.”
Today he says the CVT organization folded in 2007 because of “politics.”
“But there’s nothing more sinister about how it went down other than the municipalities not wanting to deal with it all — Visitors Centre, hotel tax, destination marketing funds — and giving it to this guy (John Watson) who wanted it,” Douglas told Decafnation.
And yet the change negatively affected local chambers of commerce.
Chambers funding reduced
Comox Valley and Cumberland chambers of commerce managed two Visitor Centres, one in Cumberland and one in Courtenay, with funding from the CVRD via CVEDS and the province.
The Comox Valley Chamber had operated the official Comox Valley visitor centre on Cliffe Avenue in Courtenay for over 50 years before CVEDS took it over. Diane Hawkins, president and CEO of the chamber said several people lost jobs due to the merger.
“The change impacted the community,” she told Decafnation. “Nearly two-thirds of visitors to the Visitor Centre were local.”
The new Visitors Centre was relocated on a back road close to the intersection of the Inland Island Highway and the connector that leads to 29th St. in Courtenay.
After Comox Valley Tourism folded, the loss of Visitor Centre funding essentially wiped out the Cumberland Chamber.
What CVEDS does today
The Economic Development Society receives local tax dollars via the Comox Valley Regional District, which specifies that roughly a third of the total be spent on each service: economic development, destination marketing and Visitors Centre operations.
CVEDS board and staff submit a work plan to the CVRD by Jan. 1 of every year that shows how it will deliver those three services along with a corresponding budget. Regional district directors can approve the plan or send it back to the society for changes. Something that has never been done.
According to CVEDS Board Chair Deana Simpkin, the CVEDS board is a policy-making board, not a working board.
“We set the strategic direction, local governments approve it, and the staff executes it,” she told Decafnation.
During a group interview with Executive Director John Watson and three board members, Decafnation asked them for some of the society’s top accomplishments in economic development.
Watson was reluctant to be specific.
“Economic development occurs in a similar fashion all across Canada,” he told Decafnation. “We learn where our focus needs to be, whether its farm, marine, seafood now or scientific research and the tech sector in the future. Once you have a sense of priorities, you learn what’s needed to succeed.”
But he did pause to mention the Farm Cycle Tour, a partnership with the Comox Valley Cycling Coalition.
“It shows off our agri and culinary product, which is a Comox Valley strength,” he said.
“Of course, it does not generate the same dollars as the billion-dollar Search and Rescue training center at CFB Comox, in which we played a role,” he said. “But they are both community successes.”
CVEDS Director Bruce Turner said the BC Seafood Festival was a major accomplishment that has helped the Baynes Sound shellfish industry.
Watson also mentioned a recent housing conference his office organized to address the need for right-priced employee housing. Watson said the discussion included the City of Whistler’s plan to build affordable public housing for its minimum wage hospitality industry workers, as well as how AirB&B and VRBO rentals affect affordability.
“Now the conversation has been changed a little and may inform the City of Courtenay’s Official Community Plan update,” he said. “And recent apartment developments around the Valley have responded.”
“We have little wins like that every day,” he said.
Job creation goes beyond CVEDS
The interview group did not point to any specific business it had attracted or to any number of jobs it had created. And you won’t find those numbers in any of the CVEDS annual reports.
Watson says that’s because CVEDS work is just a supporting role in a complex interplay among local government, private investors and entrepreneurs.
“Economic development is just one of the many services provided by local government,” he told Decafnation. “We work with various departments in the municipalities. We’re inter-related. It’s all part of one mandate, different components of the same thing.”
In its most recent (2018) annual report, previous CVEDS board President Justin Rigsby noted six highlights of the society’s work in 2018.
— Hosted more than 600 businesses in a range of workshops
— Piloted a Downtown Comox ambassador program that engaged 2,000 visitors
— Leveraged the local hotel tax to secure a $225,000 grant from Destination BC for marketing
— Worked with 24 regional businesses to expand their exporting capacity through the Export Navigator Program
— “Developed and hosted” the three-day BC Seafood Festival for more than 5,200 ticket buyers
— Secured a new memorandum of understanding with the Comox Valley Arts Council
The society is currently working on its Innovate 2030 strategic plan required by the regional district as part of the contract renewal process. The plan is due Oct. 31, 2019 and the CVEDS contract with the regional district expires on March 31, 2019.
Next: A look at CVEDS financial statements and measuring the value of taxpayers’ investment