Survey shows Comox Valley’s economic development model the outlier on Vancouver Island

Survey shows Comox Valley’s economic development model the outlier on Vancouver Island

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Survey shows Comox Valley’s economic development model the outlier on Vancouver Island

By George Le Masurier

Among Vancouver Island communities, only the Comox Valley continues to use a 1980s model for delivering economic development and destination marketing; an organizational structure that other municipalities and regions have abandoned.

And that model may be at the root of local dissatisfaction with the Comox Valley Economic Development Society.

Businesses and organizations representing multiple sectors of the community have expressed a variety of concerns and skepticism about CVEDS. Those concerns appear to stem in part from the lack of accountability built into its structure, which a 2014 performance review suggested could incubate an operational philosophy that leads to low levels of trust and credibility.

This is not an uncommon problem for governments with arms-length organizations governed by boards that have no direct public accountability. It is one reason why, in recent years, Nanaimo and Campbell River have folded economic development commissions with models similar to CVEDS.

Voting in 2017 to disband Rivercorp, Campbell River’s equivalent to CVEDS, Councillor Charlie Cornfield said it was time “to turn the page.”

“As disappointed as I am to see the model that myself and council had supported and encouraged — it didn’t work the way we had intended,” Cornfield told a Campbell River newspaper at the time.

Other communities clearly agree. A Decafnation survey of Vancouver Island and nearby coastal regions found that only the Comox Valley still operates an arms-length economic development function.

Municipal staff handle economic development in Powell River, Campbell River, Parksville and Qualicum, Port Alberni, Nanaimo and Cumberland.

Even the Cowichan Valley Regional District handles economic development “in-house” for a large geographic area that includes several different jurisdictions, including Duncan, Chemanius, North Cowichan and Ladysmith.

The Comox Valley is also the only community to still combine economic development with visitor center management and destination marketing. Other municipalities have either contracted out tourism marketing or rely on community member-based organizations, such as Chambers of Commerce.

“Combining economic development and tourism? Nobody saw that as a good model,” Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog told Decafnation.

Symptomatic of CVEDS problems, the Village of Cumberland, Denman Island and Hornby Island have all withdrawn from the regional economic development function. And there is speculation that one or two electoral areas are considering the value of their continued participation in advance of next year’s first quarter contract negotiations.

CVEDS’ five-year contract with the Comox Valley Regional District expires on March 31, 2020.

“If people are dropping out of something that indicates poor leadership or a structure that isn’t going to succeed,” Krog said.


Case study: Nanaimo

Prior to 2011, the City of Nanaimo handled economic development in-house with designated municipal staff. Eight years ago, then mayor John Ruttan spearheaded formation of the Nanaimo Economic Development Corporation, an arms-length entity similar to CVEDS that also had tourism marketing responsibilities.

But just five years later, new mayor Bill McKay and council pulled destination marketing responsibilities from the NEDC. That triggered a public rant by then EDC executive John Hankins for which he was fired from his $130,000 a year job.

McKay and Nanaimo Council then decided in December 2016 to take economic development back in-house and fold the corporation.

Now, the city has taken the first steps toward creating a new hybrid model for economic development that new Mayor Leonard Krog believes will enhance Nanaimo’s prosperity through the ups and downs of the economic cycle.

“There’s no question our city in-house staff needs some capacity,” Krog told Decafnation. “”Nanaimo is in a unique position as a port city, with a university and a regional hospital, and our location — there’s more population north of the Malahat than south of it — so economic development warrants more investment.”

In August, Nanaimo City Council endorsed the recommendations of a report by Neilson Strategies to create a hybrid model with many of the organizational details being determined by a broad-based community task force.

If it’s ultimately adopted, the new Nanaimo structure would expand the existing in-house economic development department, with this initial scope of services:

  • develop the city’s economic development strategy
  •  produce related economic reports
  • assist businesses in navigating city departments and provide information
  • manage the city’s contract with Tourism Vancouver Island for destination marketing, and any other related contracts with external agencies
  • provide input to city departments to facilitate economic activity

The new plan would also create a new arms-length Nanaimo Prosperity Agency, whose initial scope would include:

  • implementation of the economic development strategy
  • coordinate with organizations with a stake in economic development
  • develop a Nanaimo brand and attract new businesses

The city is also creating a temporary Economic Development Task Force drawn from community leaders that will investigate and review ownership, funding, governance and staffing options for the Nanaimo Prosperity Agency and recommend a final operating model to the City Council.

The task force will also play a role with in-house staff in developing the economic development strategy, including hiring the consulting firm to complete the strategy and endorsing the final draft for council adoption.

The city has already signed a contract with Tourism Vancouver Island for destination marketing services valued at about $650,000 in the first year.


Case study: Campbell River

Prior to 2017, the City of Campbell River funded an arms-length corporation governed by an independent board of directors, called Rivercorp, to provide economic development services. Similar to the Comox Valley Economic Development Society, Rivercorp handled destination marketing and managed a visitor’s centre in addition to its economic activities.

But by April of 2011, Rivercorp was being widely criticized for a lack of measurable results. Public dissatisfaction had started to manifest itself at city council meetings, according to a report in a Campbell River newspaper.

Former councillor Ziggy Stewart said simply that Rivercorp wasn’t doing its job.

“I’ve been involved with Rivercorp for the last five budgets now, and just strictly from a business decision, the return on investment hasn’t been there,” Stewart said.

Former councillor Mary Storry said the community had lost faith in the organization.

“At this point we’re looking for performance and we haven’t seen the performance,” Storry said.

Then, at an all-candidates meeting during the 2014 municipal elections, both the outgoing mayor Walter Jakeway and Mayor-elect Andy Adams said Rivercorp wasn’t delivering enough economic growth. That sounded the death warrant for Rivercrop.

According to a news report, Jakeway called Rivercrop a “disaster” and said the “entire thing needed to be gotten rid of.”

Rose Klukas

So it wasn’t a surprise when Rivercorp’s chief executive, Vic Goodman, resigned after the 2014 elections. And it shocked no one in April of 2015 when Mayor Andy Adams and City Council announced their intention to fold Rivercrop and take economic development in-house.

“A thorough re-evaluation, in collaboration with the Rivercrop board, has helped us conclude that the best way forward is to bring the economic development role into city operations,” Adams said. “We are confident that combining the economic development function with community development work done in other city departments will result in a more efficient and coordinated effort.”

Campbell River hired Economic Development Officer Rose Klukas in May of 2016 to report directly to City Manager Deborah Sargent. Klukas previously held the same position in Kitimat.

Adams told Decafnation this week that Klukas’ office is next to his and Sargent’s as a visible indication of the importance placed on economic development.

“Prospective investors have access to the mayor and city manager,” he said. “Those connections create synergies and opportunities.”

Campbell River also separated out responsibilities for destination marketing and visitor centre management.

Campbell River Council hired the consulting firm, Chemistry Consulting, to study how other communities dealt with tourism and destination marketing. They found that Tourism Vancouver Island handles these roles for many Island communities.

But the city chose an unlikely company, Destination Think. It’s a global company with offices in places like Amsterdam and the Australian Gold Coast and works for big municipal Canadian clients like Banff Lake Louise, Calgary, Montreal and Stratford.

Destination Think also works with smaller BC communities such as Vernon, Langley and Richmond.

“We took a chance on them and it’s the best decision we ever made,” Adams said. “We’re tapped into their worldwide reach.”

The arrangement with Destination Think included the creation of Destination Campbell River to implement a five-year tourism plan, which was developed over six months with community consultation.

The city hired Kirsten Soder to head that effort with an assistant and seasonal staff to operate the Campbell River visitor’s centre. Soder was previously the executive director of Tourism Tofino.

An independent long-time organization, the Campbell River Tourism Promotion Society, agreed this year to wind down its operations and join forces with Destination Campbell River. Now all online enquiries get directed to a single website maintained by the city.

Campbell River contributes $250,000 annually from city coffers and the Destination CR group receives close to another $500,000 from the city’s hotel tax, officially known as the Municipal Regional and District tax. Destination Think leverages that up with provincial grants.

Mayor Adams told Decafnation that the city has finally aligned all its economic and tourism efforts and they’re pulling in the same direction. And there’s a financial bonus, too.

“The realignment is costing us less or at least the same as before,” he said. “And with the MRDT money we’re able to do even more.”


Case study: Cowichan Valley Regional District

Skeptics of taking Comox Valley economic development in-house have often cited the difficulty of satisfying all the staff and elected officials from three separate municipalities, a regional district and three electoral areas.

But the Cowichan Valley has done it for years.

The Cowichan Valley has always managed its economic development activities through an in-house regional district function, according to Barry O’Riordan, manager of Economic Development Cowichan.

And since 2016, the economic development office no longer handles any tourism or destination marketing responsibilities.

“In 2016, the Cowichan Valley Regional District contracted Tourism Cowichan Society to deliver the regional tourism services. The regional tourism requisition mandated by a CVRD bylaw is $120,000 and this is used to leverage additional support from Destination BC,” O’Riordan told Decafnation this week. “Additionally, Tourism Cowichan Society receives MRDT funds that flow through the CVRD and industry contributions in the form of membership dues to form their overall budget.”

Prior to 2016, regional tourism services were delivered through the EDC office, but that was found to be an inefficient model.

Cowichan regional visitor centres are now managed by the Chambers of Commerce in Duncan, Chemainus, Ladysmith and Lake Cowichan.


Case Study: Cumberland

As Decafnation has previously reported, the Village of Cumberland announced it would withdraw from Comox Valley Regional District’s economic development function during the summer of 2015.

Participation became an issue during the 2014 municipal elections when all candidates seeking Village Council positions supported a withdrawal.

The Village had taken part in the 2014 performance review of CVEDS by Urbanics Consultants and candidates said the resulting report and recommendations reinforced the community’s perspective that the service was unsatisfactory and was not serving the best interests of Cumberland.

Other Comox Valley elected officials opposed Cumberland’s withdrawal, and the village has been penalized for withdrawing after the CVRD awarded CVEDS with a five-year contract in March of 2015. It has paid about $40,000 per year to the service for the past three years to complete its financial obligation.

In 2018, the village hired Kaelin Chambers as its first economic development coordinator to implement a Cumberland-specific strategy. One of his top priorities is to attract new businesses to the Bevan Industrial Lands, which comprise roughly 84 percent of all available commercial property in the Comox Valley.

Because it currently has a small commercial base, the Village’s finances rely primarily on property taxes from the community’s 3,500 residents.

Chambers has already had success. He reported this month that Tree Island Yogurt plans to purchase 15 acres along Bevan Road from Comox Timber Limited to construct a 28,000-square-foot production facility. It will be about four times larger than the companies current facility in Royston.


What’s next

The CVEDS board must present its proposed five-year strategic plan to CVRD directors by Oct. 31. And a review of CVEDS contract fulfillment by consultants Explore Solutions is due by Dec. 31.

Nine of the 10 CVRD directors — Cumberland won’t have a vote — will then use those two documents to deliberate the future of economic development and tourism marketing in the Comox Valley. 











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.



“We feel that there will always be a certain level of scepticism surrounding the value of CVEDS activities unless it can produce the metrics that taxpayers want.”

“We feel that an organization such as CVEDS (or any economic development organization) does require a certain level of social license in order to effectively carry out its job  … the unique political landscape of Comox Valley warrants an effort to earn, build and maintain social license within the community.”

“The majority of the criticism we have obseved has centered on a lack of communication and transparency.”



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More CVEDS | Latest Feature
Relationship issues still plague Economic Development Society in some Comox Valley sectors

Relationship issues still plague Economic Development Society in some Comox Valley sectors

Grierson Stage at the Vancouver Island Music Festival  /  Photo by Brent Reid, 20-year VIMF volunteer photographer

Relationship issues still plague Economic Development Society in some Comox Valley sectors

By George Le Masurier

Fourth in a series about the Comox Valley Economic Development Society

In 2014, the regional district commissioned an extensive performance review of the Comox Valley Economic Development Society. Among its central findings: the society needed to improve how it communicates with governments and the public and that it must rebuild relationships within the community.

The reviewers, Urbanic Consultants, emphasized those points among a total of 30 recommendations for improvement and then underscored their importance and urgency.

“CVEDS must address these matters forthwith if it expects to remain entrusted with delivering the economic development service function in the long run,” they said. “Otherwise, if no changes are evident, the public may begin to demand more drastic actions, including pressuring government to not renew the service delivery agreement,” Urbanic Consultants wrote.

But a Decafnation investigation has revealed that many issues still exist five years later. If relationships have improved, sources told us, it’s because they are resigned to working with CVEDS. They control most of the community’s marketing money, and elected officials “don’t want to open that can of worms.”

Our investigation encountered a litany of complaints from multiple community sectors, organizations and businesses, including:

The society is often slow to pay its bills, at least once not paying at all. It doesn’t always engage local partners in a collaborative manner. It often goes out of town for services available locally. It ignores important community sectors. It has promoted unwanted developments, showing themselves out of touch with community values. It has a reputation for being difficult to work with.

Some of those interviewed, who have operated businesses in the CV for a long period of time, said the society has “a lot of baggage,” and that some relationships with CVEDS were irreparably fractured because “the animosity is ingrained now.”

Area B Director Arzeena Hamir, who has a background in economic development for the agriculture sector, believes success comes from creating relationships and connecting people.

“It’s about building on what’s already here and helping it grow or making it better,” she told Decafnation. “To do that requires trust and strong relationships. If there’s no trust, if you’ve burned bridges, how can you do economic development effectively?”


Slow to pay

Several business owners and managers have had trouble collecting payment from the Economic Development Society. One key Comox Valley nonprofit organization says it never got paid at all.

Ronald St. Pierre, owner and BC Hall of Fame chef of Locals Restaurant, had a slow pay problem with CVEDS, which he says has been cleared up now.

David Rooper, general manager of The Old House Hotel and Spa, had the same problem, but to a larger degree, and now will only book blocks of rooms for the society on credit cards.

“Until there is different financial accounting that allows a shorter time frame for reimbursement, we cannot offer credit for CVEDS,” Rooper told Decafnation.

CVEDS Executive Director John Watson told Decafnation that he wasn’t aware of any slow pay problems. He said the timing of payments is simply a factor of how funding flows from governments.

But Rooper and others believe the society could better manage its financials because government and grant funding is scheduled and predictable.


Where did the money go?

Although the CVEDS performance review recommended rebuilding relationships with complementary organizations, in 2015 the society burned the Comox Valley’s single largest tourism event: Vancouver Island Music Fest.

CVEDS contracted Music Fest to hire musicians who would perform at various locations around Courtenay for the first-ever Winterfest, an invention of CVEDS to boost tourism during the winter months. The first year was a success, but from Music Fest’s perspective, year two turned into a disaster.

Executive Producer and Artistic Director Doug Cox said he was getting nervous close to the event because communications with CVEDS had suddenly stopped. He says the CVEDS office wouldn’t answer his calls. He was repeatedly told that Executive Director John Watson wasn’t in the office and they didn’t know where he went.

Cox finally went to the CVEDS office with plans to stay there until someone talked to him. He was eventually told there was no money to pay the musicians.

But Cox says neither Watson or anyone from the board of directors has ever explained what happened to the musicians’ money.

Music Fest had to pay the musicians itself, about $40,000, which Cox said was a burden for his organization. Music Fest also paid some of the Sid Williams Theatre rental obligations where Winterfest musicians had been booked to perform.

And the rift goes deeper. Music Fest organizers say CVEDS does little to help market the festival.

“Music Fest is the biggest tourism event in the Valley. We have 10,000 people daily, 1,400 volunteers, 400 musicians and sell out the area’s 800 hotel beds, plus fill campgrounds and B&Bs.” he told Decafnation. “It’s just frustrating not to get any help from them. They only market their own events.”

When Decafnation asked Watson what happened to the musicians money, he said CVEDS was “moving on.”

“This was some time ago and we are focused on the future in regards to the festival, which will form part of the discussions that are occurring with the long-term tourism sector planning work underway within the strategy process this fall,” he told Decafnation in an email.


Collaborating with partners

Seven years ago, Courtenay hotels voluntarily agreed to support a City of Courtenay application that sought provincial approval to implement a two percent tax on room rates and use that money for destination marketing.

It’s widely assumed that all Comox Valley hotels and motels collect the tax, which is handed over to the Economic Development Society. But, in fact, it only applies to hotels, motels and some Bed and Breakfast businesses within the city.

The Port Augusta motel in Comox does not participate. Neither do any resorts outside Courtenay city limits, including Union Bay’s Kingfisher Inn, the single largest destination resort in the region.

Rick Browning owner of the Best Western Westerly Hotel “vehemently disagrees” about the structure of the hotel tax.

“If we’re serious about tourism, we should apply a consumption tax for the entire hospitality industry — including restaurants, boat charters, the ski resort and so on,” he told Decafnation. “Why are hotels the only people who have to increase the cost of their product?”

There are about 300 listings online for AirB&Bs and VRBOs in the Comox Valley. That’s the equivalent of four Bayview hotels (formerly called the Holiday Inn Express), Browning said.

“Where the (CVEDS) board fails miserably is they don’t engage hotels to discuss whether their model works or not. If would be more productive if they did and we would get the best solution — whether that’s CVEDS or not,” he said.

The Old House Hotel and Spa

Browning has tried to get on the CVEDS board several times but has been rebuffed. He believes they are reticent to have hospitality industry representation.

David Rooper at The Old House Hotel agrees that CVEDS could improve communications with Courtenay hotels. Some members of the Destination Marketing Advisory Committee — created by CVEDS after taking over the former Comox Valley Tourism organization  and includes B&Bs and the downtown Business Improvement District — say they don’t receive agendas in a timely fashion and the minutes don’t detail actual conversations.

“CVEDS could improve on relationships, meetings, communication,” he told Decafnation. “The organizational structure needs a review.”

Other members of the DMAC, who didn’t want to speak publicly, have told Decafnation that the committee appears to have little influence on how their hotel tax money is spent.

Rooper agrees. “I would like to see the DMAC act more like a steering committee and involve us in decisions,” he said.

During his career in hospitality, Rooper has seen other models for destination marketing organizations, and he thinks CVEDS should adopt some of their best practices.

He pointed out the City of Nanaimo as an example. They have contracted with Tourism Vancouver Island for all destination marketing activity, separating it from economic development.

“If we don’t move forward pretty quick, someone will eat our lunch,” he said.


Buy local? Not always

Even the Valley’s burgeoning technology sector is not immune to issues of communication and lack of  financial support from CVEDS.

Nik Szymanis, cofounder of Tickit, a successful Canada-wide online event ticketing company headquartered in Courtenay, says he parted ways with CVEDS this year due to different business philosophies.

Tickit, a 10-year-old company, had been the ticketing agency for CVEDS events for several years, working on projects that ranged from small conferences to the annual BC Seafood Festival.

But as a growing enterprise, Szymanis and his partner Alex Dunae, had trouble collecting payment for their services, sometimes waiting as long as eight months for a cheque. So two years ago they switched CVEDS from a credit account to an account requiring payment up front.

Then, this year, they discovered by accident through a print advertisement that CVEDS had hired one of their competitors, a ticketing agency in Alberta, for the 2019 BC Seafood Festival.

“There wasn’t any consultation, we just happened to see the ad,” Szymanis told Decafnation.

With 99 percent of their clients, Szymanis says Tickit has great open communications. With customers, they share ideas, insights and brainstorm how to improve their services.

“CVEDS didn’t have any desire to play that collaborative game,” Szymanis said, so he and Dunae decided to drop the society as a client and move on.


Public relations

Prior to the 2014 performance review, CVEDS had purchased an expensive full page advertisement in the Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper that among other things promoted the Raven Coal Mine, which local governments, K’omoks First Nation and the conservation community had opposed.

The ad also promoted the Sage Hills housing development south of Courtenay, whose principals had committed fraud and other violations according to the BC Securities Commission.

That caused Urbanic Consultants to write that “if CVEDS is unwilling to manage its message, then the dialog surrounding it will be shaped by external parties, which may ultimately diminish its ability to deliver on its mandate.”

Yet several years later, the CVEDS website featured Riverwood, the ill-fated 3L Developments proposal, as a regional development site during a period of widespread citizen protests and protracted wrangles with the regional district that included litigation over the Regional Growth Strategy.

That casued a storm of negative CVEDS comments and concerns on Facebook and other platforms.

Courtenay Councillor Wendy Morin commented at the time, “Where are other examples of ED boards promoting developments outside their RGSs that require a major amendment (that may or may not be approved), that are as contentious as this? What incredible disrespect of process this is.”

Former Comox mayor Paul Ives defended CVEDS, commenting on Facebook that the society had made “no error” and that there was “nothing shady at all.” He advised critics to “check out what CVEDS is doing for yourself rather than taking shots from the cheap seats.”

Immediately after the Riverwood issue blew up on social media, CVEDS took the reference to the 3L development off their website. The CVRD board eventually rejected the 3L application to amend the RGS and the developers later lost a subsequent lawsuit against the regional district.


Arts and culture ignored?

The Comox Valley is widely known as a community rich with resident artists and a vibrant culture of festivals, musical theatre and the nationally renowned Comox Valley Youth Music Center.

But the Economic Development Society does not recognize arts and culture as a key sector of the Comox Valley region, according to its website. In fact, the society has a stormy past with key players in the regional arts community.

Marty Douglas, a local real estate personality who has been heavily involved in Comox Valley musical theatre groups since the early 1980s, says CVEDS has done “zero cultural marketing, yet it’s a huge driver of regional tourism.”

Elevate the Arts event in Cumberland, from Facebook

Attendance figures at the Sid Williams Theatre, for example, have grown by more than five percent per year for decades, he said.

Meaghan Cursons, one of the driving forces behind the local event production company, Elevate, thinks CVEDS is missing a big part — arts and culture — of the Comox Valley narrative.

“They no longer have a mandate to deal with the whole picture,” she told Decafnation. “And that means the Comox Valley cultural story still isn’t being told.”

Because the Village of Cumberland pulled out of the economic development function, the society doesn’t collaborate with the village’s many festivals.

“Our character, our gifts, our colour, our relationships are all missing from the official Comox Valley narrative,” Coursons said. “Which is silly because the cultural community, producers and consumers, knows no boundaries. It’s like tearing pages out of a book. Their content makes no sense anymore and the marketing materials are losing relevance. But we’re thriving out here in spite of it.”

Cumberland’s new in-house economic development strategic plan now has a strong arts and culture focus.

In 2008, Denman and Hornby islands, the home for a large number of the region’s artists, also stopped participating with CVEDS.

Residents of the two islands individually formed the Hornby Island Community Economic Enhancement Corporation and Denman Works to address economic development from a more local perspective. Area A Director Daniel Arbour was the executive director of HICEEC from 2014 through 2018.

And, although CVEDS pursued and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Comox Valley Arts Council last December — as recommended in the 2014 performance review — their past relationship had been strained.

“Until last year, there wasn’t a lot of support,” Arts Council Executive Director Dallas Stevenson told Decafnation.

Stevenson, who’s been at the helm of the arts council for 13 years, recalls a “real struggle” in 2007 over an application for federal funding that required an arts and culture strategic plan .

However, since working out last year’s MOU, Stevenson says “the relationship has gotten better.”


Working with contractors

CVEDS initially hired Watermark Communications to produce this summer’s BC Seafood Festival. But after introducing the Whistler-based firm at several high-profile local gatherings, Watermark wasn’t heard from again. CVEDS has never explained what happened.

Sue Eckersley, president of Watermark, which produces the Whistler Cornucopia festival, told Decafnation she preferred not to comment on what happened.

When asked, Lara Greasly, the society’s marketing and communications manager, would not comment directly other than to say CVEDS decided to go a different direction with two separate contractors. They hired Impact Events, a Kelowna company, as the food and beverage director and local resident John Mang as the site and venue services director.

But another source close to the situation said there was a dispute because the working agreement shifted unexpectedly and Watermark decided to back out.


Local government

The 2014 economic development performance review recommended CVEDS improve its communications with local governments, as well as the general public.

The consultants who wrote the review suggested semi-annual presentations to local government in addition to semi-annual meetings with municipal chief administrative officers.

CVRD Chief Administrative Officer Russell Dyson told Decafnation the society had followed through on those recommendations and that the change had improved communications.

Courtenay Mayor Bob Wells agreed.

“I think they’re doing well on that,” Wells told Decafnation. He declined to comment further.

Next: What is ‘economic development,’ and how are other municipalities and regions doing it.










Reporting on CVEDS relationships within the community evolved into a difficult assignment on two fronts.

First, some of those we contacted in various economic sectors would not speak on the record. As a group, they generally feared retribution from CVEDS, such as cutting off marketing or other support for events that benefit them.

“Because CVEDS controls all the money, local and provincially … I can’t say anything. I know that’s part of the problem, not making things better,” one source told Decafnation.

Secondly, we encountered an initial unwillingness by CVEDS staff to be interviewed. Decafnation started contacting Executive Director John Watson in May to arrange an interview. We received no response. We eventually asked Board of Directors Chair Deana Simpkin for an interview in lieu of speaking with staff.

But it wasn’t until after we solicited the help of several Comox Valley elected officials that Watson finally responded and agreed to meet on Sept. 3, nearly four months after our first request.

The inteview was arranged with Watson, Board Chair Simpkin and Vice Chair Bruce Turner. When we arrived, newly elected director Paul Ives was also in the room. Later we learned that other newly elected directors had not been asked to join the interview.

In the 2014 performance review of CVEDS written by Urbanic Consultants, they wrote that in some cases “attempts to contact CVEDS would go unanswered, which contributes to (a) fairly common perception that CVEDS ignores whom they ‘do not like’.”




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Neither private or public, Economic Development Society provides limited financial information

Neither private or public, Economic Development Society provides limited financial information

Farm Cycle Tour display at the Visitors Center  /  George Le Masurier

Neither private or public, Economic Development Society provides limited financial information

By George Le Masurier

Third in a series of articles examining the Comox Valley Economic Development Society

If a citizen wants to know the salaries or travel expenses of their elected officials or local public employees, or how much their municipality spent on new streetlights, that data is readily available. If not, the public can obtain any financial data through a Freedom of Information request.

Private individuals and organizations, on the other hand, have no obligation to talk about their finances in public. And the Freedom of Information Act doesn’t apply to them.

The Comox Valley Economic Development Society exists somewhere in the grey area between these organizational models. It is neither a private or public organization.

CVEDS is a so-called arms-length entity. It delivers a service that CVRD directors two decades ago determined did not easily fit into the traditional administrative government model. It takes public funding, but acts independently.

And the limited financial information that the society releases publicly has long been a frustration for both citizens and elected officials.

CVEDS does not follow the standard financial reporting model used by all public institutions. They have created their own reporting format that does not break down the individual cost of its various initiatives or the wages and benefits of individual employees earning more than $75,000, a requirement of public reporting since the early 2000s.

Despite requests for more detailed financial information the CVEDS board has declined to provide it. That has raised debate over whether the public should expect that the finances of groups and organizations funded largely, but not exclusively, by taxpayer’s money be open for public scrutiny. 

A 2014 performance review of the organization by Urbanic Consultants observed, “While CVEDS has been providing audited financial statements annually per the Service Delivery Agreement, the statements do not necessarily give an account of how taxpayer money is being put to use.”

And, the consultants added, “the unique political landscape of Comox Valley warrants an effort to earn, build and maintain social license within the community.”


Sources of CVEDS income

The society holds a contract with the Comox Valley Regional District and received more than $1.2 million from local taxpayers in 2018 and another $290,000 from provincial and federal governments, according to its most recent unaudited financial statements.

Complicating the issue of financial transparency, the society also received the Municipal and Regional District Tax, better known as the hotel tax. Those funds come from private businesses — primarily hotels — that have agreed to add a two percent surtax onto their room rates to promote overnight tourism for the Comox Valley.

Visitors Centre on a weekday

CVEDS other income comes from advertising and ticket sales, retail commissions and bookings and earned interest, which are not technically public funds, although they wouldn’t be possible without taxpayers’ money propping up the society.

From the 2018 unaudited statement of financial position obtained by Decafnation, the Economic Development Society received $1,202,310 from local taxpayers as of Dec. 31, 2018 and another $1,003,522 from other public and private sources. With amortization of deferred capital contributions, last year’s total revenue came to $2,272,618.

Those other sources of revenue included the hotel tax ($320,781) and funding from the provincial government and agencies ($289,976). Other income amounted to $460,051, and the deferred capital contributions added $66,786.

CVEDS spent all but $76,742 of that income.

The society’s financials also show capital assets of $4,989,058, which is the assessed value of the Visitor’s Centre property and the building.


How CVEDS spends it

Wages and initiatives are the society’s two largest expenses.

In 2018, wages and benefits at $704,473 were the second biggest expense, accounting for about 58 percent of $1,213,605 total general expenses, not counting the cost of initiatives and contract services that CVEDS breaks out separately. Wages and benefits were about 32 percent of all expenses ($2,195,876).

There is no breakdown of how wages were split between CVEDS’ five full-time employees and roughly 4 FTE at the Visitors Centre, although some public officials have unsuccessfully requested information about individual compensation.

According to Schedule 6 of the financial statements, which shows income and expense by its three main focus areas — economic development, the Visitors Centre and destination marketing — wages and benefits are almost evenly split between economic development ($276,955) and the Visitors Centre ($282,388).

But only $145,129 in wages were attributed to destination marketing, which is the source of the largest share of CVEDS revenue, coming from the hotel tax, provincial grants, the CVRD and event revenue from the BC Seafood Festival and Expo. 

An analysis of the wage break down indicates that CVEDS staff spent nearly as much time managing the Visitors Centre as it did on economic development, and nearly twice as much time as they spent on destination marketing. That has raised some questions considering that the festival is the society’s single largest event.

Decafnation asked Board Chair Deana Simpkin and Executive Director John Watson on Sept. 23 to explain the distribution of wages among the society’s activities. Neither have responded.


Cost of initiatives

CVEDS spent $982,271 on initiatives and contract services in 2018. It was the single largest expense item.

But the financial statements provide no further details. The line item is not broken down to explain how much was spent on individual initiatives or even similar types of initiatives.

However, from an analysis of the individual MRDT and destination marketing operating statements, included in the overall financials, it appears that about half of the amount spent on initiatives, $464,978, represents the cost of staging the BC Seafood Festival.

Watson would not confirm or deny that estimated cost, but did say the festival is the society’s single largest initiative.

“(The Seafood Festival) is the largest single event and is steadily growing each year. Starting from a single evening it has now grown to 10 days of various activities and many, many partners,” Watson told Decafnation.

Lara Greasly, CVEDS’s marketing and communications manager said the “Festival/Expo Income and Expense … is the largest event supported by the Destination Marketing program.”

Greasly said tickets and related sales make up approximately 43 percent of revenue for the Signature Weekend and Expo. Sponsorship and related contributions comprise the other 57 percent.

On the expense side, 38 percent of total expenses were spent on marketing the event. Other expenses include the Seafood Expo – 12 percent, rentals/site – 20 percent, food and beverage – 12 percent, entertainment and competition – 5 percent and production — 13 percent.


Guarding CVEDS financial data

Getting CVEDS financial information can be difficult.

Even the Comox Valley Regional District is unclear whether it should share CVEDS’ financial statements. When Decafnation asked for a copy of the 2018 statements, the CVRD initially said it would provide them, and then later changed its mind and refused.

The audited statements were available, however, at the society’s annual general meeting in May.

The availability and depth of CVEDS financial reporting partly results from the nature of its unique contract with the CVRD.

Private contractors with local governments have no obligation to provide any public information. But they bid on competitive contracts.

Because the CVRD created the Economic Development Society through a bylaw, its contract is regarded differently. There is no Request for Proposal issued and no other individual or organization can bid on the contract. And the regional district is the society’s only contract.

According to some, that makes CVEDS immune from divulging further financial information.

So the question arises: Can taxpayers and elected officials reasonably assess whether CVEDS provides an acceptable return on investment with the limited financial information available to facilitate public understanding?


Return on investment

In the 2014 CVEDS performance review, Urbanics Consultants notes that the results of economic development activities are “notoriously difficult” to quantify. But the consultants recommended that CVEDS start tracking their work for its direct monetary impact versus resources expended.

“We feel that there will always be a certain level of scepticism surrounding the value of CVEDS activities unless it can produce the metrics that taxpayers want (e.g. jobs added, tax revenues increased, etc.),” the consultants wrote.

That recommendation has not been addressed says CVEDS Director and Vice Chair Bruce Turner because economic development is a complex activity. He says there are no metrics that could measure the results of some initiatives.

Besides, Turner says, only about one half of one percent of annual Comox Valley tax revenue is allocated to CVEDS.

“We’re not spending a lot of money on economic development,” he said.

But figuring out how that money is spent concerns Area B Director Arzeena Hamir.

“One of the frustrating things for me as an elected official is tracking where tax dollars are spent,” she told Decafnation. “The CVRD provides a certain amount for destination marketing and a certain amount for economic development. With the way the financial statements are currently presented, I have a hard time tracking if citizens are getting value for their tax dollars. Where where those ED dollars spent and what was the impact? I have a hard time getting those questions answered.”

Hamir says if individual industries can’t say that CVEDS activity helped move the dial, “then what are we doing with our tax dollars?”

Turner says every CVEDS activity has a KPI — key performance indicator — attached to it, and they are listed in the strategic plan as expected results.

But when asked for the KPIs for the BC Seafood Festival and Expo, Turner referred Decafnation to CVEDS Business Development Officer Geoff Crawford who provided a link to a document showing photos and statistics from the most recent event. 

Turner says these KPI statistics, such as number of tickets sold, are “output” measures, which he distinguishes from “outcomes.”

“Outcomes are those longer term results beyond the control of CVEDS alone,” he told Decafnation. “While CVEDS can contribute to their achievement, outcomes require the collaboration of all the primary stakeholders in the Comox Valley … and the province.”

Turner said investments in economic development compares to a municipality investing in infrastructure, “it’s not so easy to measure.”

“How do we measure the value or benefit of the information provided by CVEDS that helps small businesses make better business decisions to remain competitive?” he said. “How do we measure the contribution to well-being and wealth preservation and growth that economic development contributes to all community members. For example, would our homes retain their value with economic decline?”

But Area A Director Daniel Arbour asks that question in a different way.

“If there was no BC Seafood Festival, would the Baynes Sound shellfish industry collapse?” he told Decafnation. “There should be measurable outcomes.”

CVEDS Board Chair Deana Simpkin takes a more practical approach.

Simpkin measures the success of events like the seafood festival by the increase in traffic through her downtown Courtenay restaurant, High Tide Public House.


Next: How different sectors of the Comox Valley view CVEDS and has the society rebuilt relationships with complimentary local organizations.



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How the Comox Valley formed an Economic Development Society and killed Comox Valley Tourism

How the Comox Valley formed an Economic Development Society and killed Comox Valley Tourism

Photo of this summer’s BC Seafood Festival, courtesy of the Economic Development Society

How the Comox Valley formed an Economic Development Society and killed Comox Valley Tourism

By George Le Masurier

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.


Takeover controversy

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.

Dennis Strand

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









The agreement between CVEDS and the CVRD for economic development, destination marketing and Visitor Center services expires on March 31, 2020.

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 had received 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.

Some key sections of the CVEDS agreement”

“20. On or before January 1 of every year of the Agreement, the Society will submit to the CVRD board its Annual Work Plan … for the provision of Services for the following year and corresponding budget.”

“21.a) On or before April 1 of every year of the Agreement, the CVRD will either approve the Annual Work Plan and inform the Society or have otherwise returned the Annual Work Plan to the Society with reasons why the Annual Plan is not approved.”


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Key excerpts from Dennis Strand’s 2007 op-ed about CVEDS

Key excerpts from Dennis Strand’s 2007 op-ed about CVEDS

Dennis Strand, former Comox councillor and former chair of the Comox Valley Committee of the Comox-Strathcona Regional District, which was subsequently split into two jurisdictions

Key excerpts from Dennis Strand’s 2007 op-ed about CVEDS

By George Le Masurier

Did Comox Valley Committe of the Comox-Strathcona Regional District in 2002 intend for the Economic Development Society to take over Comox Valley Tourism and keep its funding?

They did not, according to the former chair of the committee.

In an op-ed article published in the Dec. 21, 2007 edition of the Comox Valley Record, Dennis Strand says it was the regional district’s intention for CVEDS to only collate and distribute funds, not make decisions to curtail them.

Strand was a former Comox Councillor and former chair of the Comox Valley Committee of the Comox-Strathcona Regional District before it was split into two regional districts later in 2008. From 2001 to 2004, he chaired the committee that oversaw funding for tourism and economic development.

Strand wrote his article after the Comox Valley Economic Development Society cut off funding to Tourism Comox Valley and assumed all of its destination marketing functions.

Here is the key excerpt of his article:

“One function (of the Comox Valley Committee that he chaired) was approving the budgets of Tourism Comox Valley, Economic Development, Courtenay Chamber of Commerce, Cumberland Chamber of Commerce, and Denman and Hornby Island tourism.

“In my first year as chair of the committee, we dealt with each budget individually based on their selective requests. This amounted to a combined total of $250,000-plus of taxpayers’ money.

“In the second and third years, the suggestion was made and it was voted on to have Economic Development review all the above budgets and bring one single amount forward. It was determined that this would be more efficient and less time consuming.

“This is where it gets interesting.

“The EDS contracted for, if my memory is correct, $10,000 annually to bring in the budget package. I thought of it in the more practical sense as parents giving one child the right to pass out candy to the other four children.

“I always wondered if it would come back to haunt anyone and maybe now it has.

“Economic Development is contracted to the regional district to administer funds fairly and equitably only, not to cut funds to Tourism Comox Valley, for example, and then suggest the two merge, i.e. not giving candy to one sibling.

“The tourism board is made up of local business and professional folks and the economic development board is made up of some politicians, some political appointments and some members of the community at large.

“Does Economic Development have justification to make these sweeping changes because the political appointees vote a certain way at the board level? The answer is unequivocally no. Economic Development is only on contract to the regional district and has limited powers.

“Political appointments are a very valuable commodity, but they are not voted in by taxpayers. My opinion, and the base of my concern, is that this dilemma can only be resolved by the new regional board. It is the only entity with the authority to make the final budget decisions.

“In my last year as chair, the idea of combining these two was brought forward but there was no political will for them to merge. Economic Development and Tourism CV are like apples and oranges; they supply specific services, but have different philosophies.

“If the 300+ Tourism CV members were surveyed today, as they were two or three years ago, to see whether they are interested in joining with Economic Development, I expect the answer would be a resounding no again because they have separate roles and want separate budgets.

“With the incredible growth in the Valley, the work of the EDS is essential. As well, with the 2010 Olympics approaching, Tourism Comox Valley is more important than ever.”

Note: Decafnation attempted to contact Dennis Strand, but did not receive a reply



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Comox Valley regional directors will decide fate of Economic Development Society

Comox Valley regional directors will decide fate of Economic Development Society

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

By George Le Masurier

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.

John Watson

“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.”

Mac’s Oysters, one of the shellfish businesses operating in Baynes Sound

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 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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