Tensions rise as Liaison Committee explores integration for CVRD, CVEDS

Tensions rise as Liaison Committee explores integration for CVRD, CVEDS

A display inside the Comox Valley Visitors Centre, which now houses the CVEDS offices  |  George Le Masurier photo

Tensions rise as Liaison Committee explores integration for CVRD, CVEDS

By George Le Masurier

Members of a committee investigating the potential for integration of Comox Valley Economic Development Society (CVEDS) operations with the regional district agreed on a short list of possible shared services at their inaugural meeting last week.

The committee instructed Comox Valley Regional District and CVEDS employees to consider collaboration on financial accounting, the audit process and related costs, office space, website and communications and human resources including staff evaluation and training. Visitor Centre operations were also seen as worthy of discussion by the committee and a presentation on the topic was requested for the next meeting.

But there wasn’t complete agreement or clarity on the larger issue of the scope of the committee’s authority and responsibilities. 

Deana Simpkin, president of the CVEDS board, asked whether she and board members Mike Opal, Bruce Turner and Paul Ives were full members of the committee or serving in an advisory capacity. Turner wondered if the board’s role, in general, had been changed.

In his opening remarks, Committee Chair Doug Hillian addressed that issue saying he hoped the group would work collaboratively and that their work would result in a closer relationship between CVEDS and the CVRD.

“This is uncharted territory, there have been significant contract changes,” Hillian said. “The rationale is that the relationship in the past has not been as close as it might be and this has led to conflict.”

Hillian assured CVEDS board members they were full participants in the Liaison Committee and called the committee’s work a “shared responsibility.”

And he added that “nothing was off the table” for discussion and invited “general comments” from everyone.

But tensions rose when Area B Director Arzeena Hamir commented on the committee’s responsibility “to collaborate in the ongoing review and clarification of contract deliverables,” according to Section 15 of the new CVEDS contract.

And she later asked CVEDS Executive Director John Watson a series of questions about a late three-month report, why minutes of the Economic Recovery Task Force haven’t been made public and why the society hadn’t held a required Annual General Meeting in 17 months.

That didn’t sit well with CVEDS board member Paul Ives who characterized comments about “deliverables” — actions required by the contract — as committee members “taking shots at each other.”

“I’m troubled by this line of questioning,” he said. “Why are we putting CVEDS staff on the hot seat? The CVRD questions are inappropriate.”

Hamir responded that it was “definitely within the purview” of the committee to ask questions of staff and appropriate to check on contract deliverables.

Chair Hillian said if the committee was going to work collaboratively and with transparency, then questions could be asked. CVRD General Manager of Planning Scott Smith also approved the questioning.

Hillian suggested CVEDS could answer Hamir’s specific questions at the next committee meeting when he hoped Watson could “attend the whole meeting.” Watson came late via teleconference to the first meeting and left early.

 

COMPLAINTS ABOUT FUNDING

CVEDS board member Bruce Turner, who attended via teleconferencing, said that reduced funding from the regional district had made it impossible for the board to meet its fiduciary responsibility. He and other board members said the new budget was hampering operations and that a reduced staff didn’t have time to fulfil all their reporting requirements.

Simpkin said there is “a backlog behind the scenes” because one staff member chose to leave and CVEDS had laid off three Visitor Centre staff. The society currently has eight staff members.

She said this lack of resources has put pressure on staff, many of whom are working from home.

For CVRD Director Hamir, the funding concerns raised the question of where regional district responsibility ends and where CVEDS responsibility begins.

“Both boards were aware of the terms of the agreement when they signed the contract, including the funding,” she said. “The contract spells out what needs to be done and when. The ‘how to do it’ is up to CVEDS. These are separate jurisdictions.”

CVRD Director Maureen Swift said the funding issue was the purpose of exploring greater integration with the CVRD.

“CVEDS can’t operate as it has in the past with the new contract,” she said.

Hillian closed the meeting hoping for better collaboration.

“It’s inevitable there would be a little tension considering the difficulty in getting to this point,” he said.

 

WHAT’S NEXT

When CVRD directors couldn’t agree on CVEDS future by the March 31 contract deadline, they chose to sign a two-year agreement with the understanding that the matter was unresolved. That agreement provided for the formation of a Liaison Committee comprising members from the CVRD and CVEDS boards as a means to assure better communication and that deliverables were meeting CVRD expectations.

The next meeting of the Liaison Committee is at 1.30 pm on Oct. 19.

Meanwhile, the CVRD board is holding a two-day workshop next week in an attempt to find common ground among directors about the future of economic development.

 

 

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A shifting political climate means change for 32-year-old society, but board still divided

A shifting political climate means change for 32-year-old society, but board still divided

Responsibility for management of the Comox Valley Visitors Centre is one of many items under discussion by CVRD directors 

A shifting political climate means change for 32-year-old society, but board still divided

By George Le Masurier

Achanging 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.

And that uncertainty has been compounded by a regional district board that appears to have been ill-prepared to renegotiate the society’s existing contract by its March 31 expiration date.

Ten months after serving notice last June of its intent to enter contract negotiations, the board still struggled with an irreconcilable diversity of opinions about whether the Comox Valley Economic Development Society (CVEDS) should be scrapped, tweaked or left in its present form.

And further hampered at the last minute by the COVID pandemic, regional directors ultimately punted its decision-making into the future.

In the interim, the CVRD signed a revised two-year contract with CVEDS provided less funding and made more demands for accountability.

“It was a poor process. Guilty as charged,” CVRD Director Doug Hillian

They also created a three-director Liaison Committee to review the society’s performance and explore new models for delivering economic development, destination marketing and Visitor Centre management.

The regional district originally created the Economic Development Society in 1988 as an arms-length organization with its own governing body to “… encourage the responsible expansion of the Comox Valley economic base.”

Operating under the guidance of its own hand-picked board of directors, the society ballooned into an agency for destination marketing and industry event productions.

But the 2018 municipal elections brought a new, more progressive political perspective to Courtenay’s municipal government and to some rural electoral areas and created change that eventually spread to the regional district.

The old status-quo regime was out. Younger and more progressive thinking was in.

Two years later, that new political climate has begun to impact the Comox Valley Economic Development Society.

Blank cheque, free rein and unquestioned allegiance are now out. Financial transparency, increased scrutiny and meaningful performance reviews are in.

 

A REGIONAL BOARD DIVIDED

In June of 2019, the Comox Valley Regional District announced its intention to renegotiate their existing five-year contract with CVEDS, which was due to expire on March 31, 2020. That gave elected officials more than nine months to gather the information they needed to assess the effectiveness of the 32-year-old society and chart a course for its future.

But by the expiry date, the board had not yet held sufficient meaningful discussions to produce a majority view about how or whether to revamp CVEDS.

Sensing the philosophical divide and without clear direction from directors, CVRD staff did not push the board for a timely contract decision. Nor had the board garnered helpful information from a consultants report that had been conducted on narrow, contract-specific terms of reference.

CVRD Director Doug Hillian said he was “disappointed” in the evaluation. For starters, the consultants delivered their report late, well past the Dec. 31, 2019 deadline. Hillian said it was one of the factors that delayed the contract negotiations.

“I had hoped the full report would have given more insight than it did,” Hillian told Decafnation. “It was unsatisfactory on every level.”

“Economic development has been at arms length, in its own silo, for so long, but we’re understanding now that it needs to be part of the whole,” CVRD Chair Jesse Ketler

CVRD board chair Jesse Ketler agreed.

“The performance review was purely contractual and was no help to directors in reaching agreement on how to approach the CVEDS contract,” Ketler told Decafnation. “In fact, in some ways, the report made the problem worse.”

Without a guiding document, the discord among directors became a stalemate.

“There was disagreement among directors on how to proceed with CVEDS and the conflict was tense,” Ketler said.

The CVRD board did have discussions during which numerous aspects of CVEDS were identified that people wanted to be examined or changed. But no director ever made a motion or proposal to either seek a new model or to sever the contract with CVEDS.

However, as the contract deadline approached, staff initiated the idea of holding a board-only workshop to get directors on the same page about the best way to handle economic development, tourism marketing and Visitor Centre management.

But before the workshop could take place, the COVID virus struck. The workshop was cancelled and dealing with the pandemic lockdown became the board’s priority.

Just this week, the CVRD board rescheduled the workshop for mid-October.

“It was a poor process. Guilty as charged,” CVRD Director Doug Hillian told Decafnation. “There was not enough in-depth discussion until it was too late due to failings of the performance evaluation and the onset of the pandemic.”

“It would have been helpful to have had a working committee and the workshop much earlier.”

So the hope of reaching a long-term plan for economic development and other services was made more difficult, according to Board Chair Ketler.

“But the board felt it needed to do something in the short-term to respond to COVID,” she said.

The answer was to form the Economic Recovery Task Force while continuing to negotiate a new contract with CVEDS.

The CVRD and CVEDS finally reached an agreement on July 27, four months past the expiry date. The two-year contract required CVEDS staff to provide administrative support for the Economic Recovery Task Force.

(Editor’s note: See the sidebar information on this page.)

Among other changes, the new agreement included the formation of a Liaison Committee of the CVRD board to continue discussions with the CVEDS board of directors about its future, and to review and clarify specific deliverables required in the contract.

 

A CONTENTIOUS COMMITTEE

During a contentious meeting on August 25, the CVRD board selected three directors to form the Liaison Committee: Chair Doug Hillian, Area B Director Arzeena Hamir and Comox Director Maureen Swift.

At first, Area C Director Edwin Grieve proposed Hillian, Comox Director Ken Grant and Area A Director Daniel Arbour to form the committee. But several directors opposed this composition, including Courtenay Director Will Cole-Hamilton.

“Over the next two years, there is the opportunity to see if this model is sustainable or not,” Hillian

“I will vote against this composition. There are different schools of thought around this table that were quite divisive during the course of our sessions,” he said at the August meeting. “This group of people — and I count myself among them — have reservations about this agreement and it would be good to have representatives on that (liaison) committee who clearly represent that viewpoint.”

Cole-Hamiltion added that the board will only come out of the process united “and with a clear conscience if the full spectrum of viewpoints is represented appropriately and respectfully.”

That led Grant and Arbour to withdraw their names from the nomination.

Grant said he was stepping out because he couldn’t “see this going in any way” to make the CVEDS service better.

Comox Director Maureen Swift and Arzeena Hamir were then nominated, with Grant and Swift cast the lone votes against adding Hamir to the committee.

 

HILLIAN, KETLER ARE OPTIMISTIC

Despite its rough start, Hillian told Decafnation last week that he’s optimistic about what the committee can achieve.

“This opens the door for discussions about whether CVEDS is in sync with community and board values, whether the relationships impacted over the years are salvageable — whether this is a structure that the board wants to continue investing in for the long-term,” he said.

Board Chair Ketler believes the values of CVEDS need to align with the changing values of our community and that of the CVRD board.

“Economic development has been at arms length, in its own silo, for so long, but we’re understanding now that it needs to be part of the whole,” she told Decafnation. “We see that now especially with COVID — things like housing, food, health and a safe environmental are all foundational to economic prosperity.”

Hillian hopes the committee’s work can answer questions “such as personnel, operation style and is it the right structure.”

“Over the next two years, there is the opportunity to see if this model is sustainable or not, while also working toward better integration and communication,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE NEW CVRD-CVEDS CONTRACT 

The Comox Valley Economic Development Society has historically benefited from five-year contracts, more than a million dollars in local taxpayer funding and sparse oversight. Their new contract with the regional district, valid for just two more full years, looks dramatically different.

Under the new terms of the agreement signed July 27, the CVRD has, among other things:

— reduced funding by about $160,000 for the remainder of 2020 and by $400,000 (nearly a third of its budget) in 2021 and 2022.

— ordered an annual schedule of remuneration and expenses for all employees earning more than $75,000 per year.

— specified that CVEDS follow Canadian accounting standards, maintain accurate records and permit CVRD inspection.

— required that the five elected officials assigned to the CVEDS board be given a full vote in all board matters.

— imposed mandatory performance reviews of all staff and the executive director.

— created a liaison team to investigate possible structural changes, integration of operations and generally review all aspects of the CVEDS’ function.

Since the contract renewal, destination marketing officer Lara Greasley left for a post at the Town of Comox. And CVEDS has laid off three employees of the Visitors Centre.

The CVEDS staff has also closed their offices above the Comox Valley Art Gallery on Duncan Avenue and moved them into the Visitors Centre near the Island Highway.

 

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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

Other Vancouver Island communities separate economic development functions from destination marketing

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 CVEDS CONTRACT RENEWAL PROCESS

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.

 

QUOTES FROM URBANIC CONSULTANTS 2014 REVIEW

“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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOW THIS ARTICLE
WAS REPORTED

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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More CVEDS
Tensions rise as Liaison Committee explores integration for CVRD, CVEDS

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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More CVEDS
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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CVRD AND CVEDS:
TERMS OF AGREEMENT

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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