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.
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.
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.