The Week: Doing it right on the wrong side of town, CVRD gets a good result for wrong reasons

The Week: Doing it right on the wrong side of town, CVRD gets a good result for wrong reasons

The Week: Doing it right on the wrong side of town, CVRD gets a good result for wrong reasons

By George Le Masurier

As voters and taxpayers, we hope our elected officials always do the right thing for the right reasons.

The Comox Valley Regional District did the right thing last week by terminating its contract with the Comox Valley Economic Development Society (CVEDS). But they did it for the wrong reasons.

The Economic Development Society was a poorly run service that clothed itself in secrecy, reported to no one but a few self-appointed friends and spent a lot of money for questionable community benefit. And in doing so, the society managed to disappoint, frustrate and antagonize broad sectors of the Comox Valley community.

That was the right reason to terminate this contract.

Hornby and Denman islands and the Village of Cumberland pulled their financial support for the CVEDS service many years ago because those taxpaying elected officials realized how little value they were getting for their money.

Regional directors from Courtenay and Areas A and B might have gotten there, too, but they were making a good faith effort to transform CVEDS into a modern and more relevant organization through — for the first time ever — serious oversight.

But the CVEDS contract was not terminated for its obvious lack of performance. It wasn’t terminated because it had lost its way many years ago by spending almost a third of its budget on a seafood festival that added nothing to the economic sustainability of local businesses beyond a slight uptick in restaurant reservations.

The society’s contract wasn’t terminated because it often claimed responsibility for things on which it actually had minimal impact. It wasn’t terminated because the society shunned accountability or that it failed to comply with requirements under the Societies Act. Or that it had trouble managing its money.

No, the regional district terminated the CVEDS contract because Comox council members objected to increased oversight and scrutiny. Comox councillors didn’t like the regional board setting goals for the society that targeted current problems, such as affordable housing for low-wage employees and familys’ access to child care.

Comox Councillor Ken Grant summed it up when he lectured Courtenay Councillor Wendy Morin about how elected officials should manage arms-length societies.

“That’s the thing about the independent governance model, you don’t get to tell them how to do their business. That’s been the problem from day one,” Grant said at the Feb. 9 regional board meeting.

Grant couldn’t have been more wrong.

When a local government creates an organization — as the regional district did by forming CVEDS in 1988 — that exists only because it receives more than $1 million in public funds annually, then the elected officials absolutely get to say what they want for their money. In fact, taxpayers expect their elected officials to set the big picture goals and to hold people accountable for achieving them.

Grant was right about one thing. The independent governance model has been the problem from day one. Day one being back in 1988. Since then the society has happily taken the public’s $1 million-plus every year and did whatever it wanted with the money. Past elected officials didn’t seem to care what they did.

What is truly amazing is that this bad example of political oversight took so long to blow up.

 

But don’t celebrate just yet

Just because the contract for economic development services gets voided later this year doesn’t mean Comox Valley taxpayers are off the hook.

The regional district wrote CVEDS a $400,000 check in January. That’s one-half of its 2021 funding. The expectation is that the society will continue to fulfil the majority of their 2021 work plan items, including the ones the Town of Comox finds so distasteful.

But, of course, the regional district has no means of ensuring that all or even most of the work will get done satisfactorily. What recourse does the CVRD have? The contract will terminate on Aug. 26 whether the work gets done or not.

The second half of the $800,000 CVEDS 2021 budget is scheduled for July. Will they automatically get another $400,000 for their last two months? Not necessarily, according to CVRD Chief Administration Officer Russell Dyson.

“CVEDS has various commitments in place to deliver services for economic development, tourism and visitors services, and destination marketing. The termination notice provides service to CVEDS for eight of the 12 months in 2021, therefore the second payment for 2021 will consider any adjustments to annual allocation for this adjustment, noting that some costs are annual whether the contract is terminated part way through the year,” he told Decafnation via email.

Dyson confirmed that the regional district would not be responsible for any severance pay for CVEDS employees because they are not CVRD employees.

But Comox Valley taxpayers might become responsible for the Visitors Centre, which some people call the “drum” building and others call the White Elephant.

According to Dyson, “Upon the wind up of CVEDS, the net assets after payment of liabilities is transferred to CVRD and the participant member municipalities. The ongoing ownership and operation of the Visitors Centre will be a key consideration of the service participants in determining future service priorities.”

Dyson says the CVRD and municipal partners will be meeting and working with CVEDS staff the next few months to “encourage” that the work plan priorities are delivered and to encourage a smooth transition to a future service delivery determined through the service review.

“The second payment amount will be determined through this collaborative work over the next few months,” he said.

 

So what will rise from the ashes of CVEDS?

How will local governments provide destination marketing, handle visitor services, manage the hotel tax money and encourage economic vibrancy?

Given that Cumberland and the islands are doing just fine managing their own economic prosperity in-house — as most other communities on Vancouver Island already do — the ideal scenario now is that Courtenay and Comox will hire their own economic development officers.

The CVRD should also hire an economic officer to focus on the three electoral areas because it’s too easy for the rural areas’ needs to be overshadowed by the municipalities. They may all feel strongly about food security, but there are different projects that need to take place in different areas.

Then all four of the Valley’s economic development officers can meet monthly to share information and work together where it’s possible.

Meanwhile, all local governments should agree to share the contract for destination marketing and visitor services to Tourism Vancouver Island (about $260,000 per year). The City of Courtenay economic development officer should have input to Tourism Vancouver Island about how local MRDT funds are spent because all of that money comes from the city.

 

Every community’s needs will evolve over time

But no matter how our elected officials propose to meet those needs, they must always favour transparency and accountability and ensure their objectives are being met without favouritism and for the benefit of the greatest number of people.

 

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Regional District terminates CVEDS contract, opposing views were too entrenched

Regional District terminates CVEDS contract, opposing views were too entrenched

Decafnation archive photo

Regional District terminates CVEDS contract, opposing views were too entrenched

By George Le Masurier

This story was updated March 2 to include a reaction from Area C Director Edwin Grieve. Comox Councillor Ken Grant and Comox Mayor Russ Arnott did not respond.

After almost a year of public discussions, in-camera meetings and mediated workshops that were often divisive, the Comox Valley Regional District will terminate its contract with the Comox Valley Economic Development Society on Aug. 26.

In an email to CVEDS Chair Deana Simkin sent Feb. 25, board Chair Jesse Ketler said the regional district was invoking Section 22 of the current service agreement signed just seven months ago on July 27. The section provides for early termination of the contract with six months notice.

A press release issued by the regional district this morning made the termination public knowledge.

The 33-year-old Economic Development Society will now almost certainly fold without a contract that provided local public funding in excess of $1.2 million annually in recent years in exchange for economic development and destination marketing services, and management of the Visitor’s Centre.

In this morning press release, Chief Administrative officer Russell Dyson said, “the CVRD with their municipal partners (City of Courtenay and Town of Comox) will continue reviewing the economic development service to provide a path forward on how economic development will be delivered within the region.”

One possible path that Comox Council has already discussed is for the town to hire its own economic development officer, as Cumberland did in 2016. Comox could still continue to participate in regional funding for destination marketing and Visitors Centre management.

Regional directors made the decision to terminate the contract at an in-camera session following the Feb. 9 full board meeting, which had become heated over the Economic Development Society’s 2021 work plan and budget.

The Comox Town Council has been at odds with the majority of regional district directors over how to manage the CVEDS contract and over its fundamentally opposing view about what constitutes economic development.

The board majority comprising directors from Courtenay and Electoral Areas A and B have pressed to make CVEDS more financially accountable and to modernize its view of what drives the local economy.

Comox Director Ken Grant made the Town Council’s position crystal clear at the Feb. 9 meeting.

“With all the angst around this, I don’t see any way how this relationship with CVEDS can continue,” he said. “So it’s time to cut our ties with CVEDS and stop pouring good money after bad.”

He said the society’s 2021 workplan included seven projects specifically requested by the board “that, in my opinion” have nothing to do with economic development. That’s taking us down a road our community really isn’t interested in.”

Those seven items included, among others, efforts to help create broader access to child care to enable women to return or enter the workforce and addressing the need for affordable housing to accommodate employees of local businesses.

Grant said the regional board has been “interjecting our decisions into their board … in an independent governance model you don’t get to tell them how to do their business,” he said. “That’s been the problem from day one.”

 

NOBODY WAS HAPPY

Comox Town Council wasn’t happy with the board’s new vision for economic development. The board majority wasn’t happy with how CVEDS operated, especially its lack of transparency and what it considered an outdated approach.

It appears both sides had become tired of the conflict.

Some observers believe Comox developed its own economic development strategy last year when the differences of opinion looked irreconcilable and they didn’t have the votes to prevail.

Town Chief Administration Officer Jordan Wahl recently spoke about hiring its own economic development officer as Cumberland did after withdrawing from the regional service five years

The town hired Lara Greasley, former CVEDS marketing manager, last year and now there is speculation they might hire CVEDS executive director John Watson.

That would leave Courtenay and the electoral areas to form their own economic development plan.

But there might still be room for a regional-wide destination marketing service and management of the Visitor’s Centre, both of which are currently under contract with Tourism Vancouver Island.

 

REACTION TO THE TERMINATION

Area A Director Daniel Arbour said the ongoing service review will allow the municipalities and rural areas to discuss how to support economic development in each respective community. He said it’s clear there are a variety of needs, some which may be best addressed in each jurisdiction, and some through regional collaboration.

“For Area A, CVEDS has worked primarily on the promotion of the shellfish sector for years. Without CVEDS, as chair of the Baynes Sound Ecosystem Forum, and AVICC local government representative on shellfish issues, I look forward to continue to grow the relationship with the businesses, BC Shellfish Association, and K’omoks First Nation on the promotion of sustainability initiatives in and around Baynes Sound,” he told Decafnation.

“Ultimately, in the years ahead, the most important economic consideration in Area A will be to properly manage growth in and around Union Bay, and to make thoughtful decisions around infrastructure requirements and integrated community planning,” he said.

Area B Director Arzeena Hamir said she has been advocating for more support for the farming sector ever since she was elected in 2018.

“Supporting farmers to increase their incomes per acre and create a vibrant food economy has always been at the forefront of my asks of our Economic Development Service. I hope to continue pushing for that,” she told Decafnation.

“I do also support more childcare places and I do see the direct connection between the vitality of the workforce and the ability of that workforce to return to work without having to worry about who is taking care of their kids,” she said.

Hamir added that she is looking forward to a transformed Economic Development Service.

“It’s been a long haul. We did try to work with CVEDS under the new contract but I felt we weren’t getting the deliverables we agreed to and CVEDS continued to make decisions (like the contract to Tourism Vancouver Island) without even informing the CVRD in advance,” she said.

Area C Director Edwin Grieve thanked the “incredible list” of volunteers who stepped up and donated so much of their time and expertise to serve on the CVEDS board. He noted past presidents Richard Hardy, Ian Whitehead, Justin Rigsby, Deana Simpkin. He also gave recognition to John Watson and Geoff, Lara, Arron and others from the staff that worked magic and doubled every public dollar.

“In this, as in so many Comox Valley endeavours, it was the volunteers, societies and not-for-profits that made this such a great place to live,” he told Decafnation. 

 

WHAT’S NEXT

It was the Comox Council that unanimously voted to request a formal review of the economic development service. That review with a hired consultant began on Jan. 17 but has so far resulted in only one in-camera meeting, which primarily focused on the process and procedures for the review.

The next meeting of the review committee is scheduled for mid-March but does not appear on the regional district’s website because they have closed the meetings to the public.

The review committee comprises representatives from Courtenay, Comox, the three electoral areas and the regional board chair.

 

 

 

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BC Seafood Festival cancelled at last minute, two more CVEDS directors quit

BC Seafood Festival cancelled at last minute, two more CVEDS directors quit

Archive photo from the 2019 BC Seafood Festival

BC Seafood Festival cancelled at last minute, two more CVEDS directors quit

By George Le Masurier

Organizers have cancelled the BC Seafood Festival, which was scheduled to take place next weekend. Comox Valley Economic Development Society Executive Director John Watson informed his board of directors of the decision at a meeting this morning, during which two more directors resigned.

Watson gave little information about why he cancelled the event, mentioning it only as a footnote to a broader discussion about the appropriateness of tourism marketing to bring snowbirds to the Comox Valley this winter, according to sources who attended the meeting.

Decafnation has since learned that local hoteliers expressed concern about the event during a time when COVID virus cases are surging and when health authorities are recommending against unnecessary travel.

David Rooper, general manager of The Old House Hotel and Spa, told Decafnation that he had pulled his participation in the festival yesterday. He had been already advising guests who had reserved rooms for the three-day event.

Bill Kelly, general manager of Crown Isle Resort, said he had recommended that Watson cancel the event.

Earlier this week, the North Island Medical Health office had contacted the CV Economic Development Society to ensure that it was following all the public health orders and guidelines. At the time, The festival’s website was promoting ticket sales broadly and its line-up of featured chefs, many of whom were from the Lower Mainland, where travel in and out had been restricted.

That resulted in changes to the website to advertise only Vancouver Island chefs and to restate pandemic protocol such as physical distancing and mask-wearing. But it continued to promote an appearance by a world champion oyster shucker from Ontario.

The festival website was still up and offering tickets this morning. It was taken down shortly before noon today.

Watson and Board Chair Deana Simkin have not replied to requests for information and comment about the cancellation.

Courtenay Councillor Melanie McCollum said Watson’s communication concerning the event was not clear. He gave no details about the cancellation except that the hotels had recommended it. But earlier in the meeting, she said, Watson explained that the festival was scheduled because the hotels wanted it.

There was no discussion by board members about the cancellation, according to McCollum and Area B Director Arzeena Hamir. But neither were surprised.

“The board was never informed the festival was being planned, we never talked about it happening,” McCollum told Decafnation. “It was a surprise when I learned a couple of weeks ago that it was going ahead.”

Hamir said the board might have figured out it was happening by the society’s financial reports that used to be distributed at meetings. But Watson hasn’t presented any financial reports to the board in 11 months, since last February.

 

TWO MORE DIRECTORS RESIGN

During the meeting, Diane Naugler, the Dean of the Faculty of Business and Applied Studies, announced her resignation from the board. Mike Obal has also resigned via email, although his resignation wasn’t recognized during the meeting.

Five directors have resigned in recent months: Naugler, Obal, Brian Yip, Bruce Turner and Justin Rigsby. That leaves Simkin, Tony Hayes, Paul Ives, Spender Serin, Jasmin Badrin and Melinda Knox as the remaining public board members.

Five elected officials also attend board meetings in a non-voting capacity: Hamir, McCollum, Area C Director Edwin Grieve, Area A Director Daniel Arbour and Comox Mayor Russ Arnott.

 

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The Week: Comox has a hissy over CV Economic Development Society changes

The Week: Comox has a hissy over CV Economic Development Society changes

It’s stormy weather this week down at the Comox Public Marina  |  George Le Masurier photo

The Week: Comox has a hissy over CV Economic Development Society changes

By George Le Masurier

Well, folks, another week has passed so that must mean another new controversy has erupted over the Comox Valley Economic Development Society. And this one has pulled back the cloak — just a tiny bit — on the behind the scenes politicking at the regional district and the lockstep march of the Comox Town Council.

In the midst of what appeared to be a collaborative attempt to reach a shared vision for the future of regional economic development, Comox Town Councillors have unanimously decided to derail that process by triggering a section of the Local Government Act. That section is often used as the first step in withdrawing from a service.

It’s no secret that the CV Economic Development Society, known as CVEDS, has become a focal point that epitomizes the Comox Valley’s geopolitical polarization. And it’s a red hot point right now.

The region’s remaining old guard, epitomized by Comox Council and Electoral Area C Director Edwin Grieve, love the CVEDS status quo. The new blood of elected officials in Cumberland, Courtenay and Areas A and B do not.

So now, with changes afoot, no one is complaining more about proposed reforms to the regional district’s relationship with CVEDS than Comox councillors. There’s a reason for that.

The old guard loves CVEDS because it has historically done their bidding. A case in point: no Comox Valley jurisdiction has benefited more from CVEDS activity than the Town of Comox.

This imbalance has rankled everyone else. And it’s one reason why Cumberland and Hornby and Denman islands have withdrawn from regional economic development services.

But that’s not the only factor driving the new blood’s desire to transform CVEDS. These elected officials want economic support services that accommodate the community’s shift toward social and environmental values.

The new blood sees the old CVEDS as promoters of environmental projects like the Raven Coal Mine and bullish land developers such as 3L Developments. They see CVEDS undermining a proposal by an active Exhibition Grounds user in order to promote a convention centre on ALR land. They see a lack of accountability, a lack of interest in the social issues that affect economic vitality and a lack of attention to non-profit organizations that contribute to economic readiness.

They also see the regional district’s reprehensibly long history of a lack of meaningful oversight of an organization funded with public money.

It’s not surprising that the Town of Comox would object to any reforms of the regional economic development service that might divert staff attention and funding to other beneficiaries. Like the agriculture community. Or the arts and cultural community. Or some other physical location of the valley.

But the extent of Comox Council’s territorial protectionism is confusing and conflicted.

This was evident at a recent CVRD workshop solely focused on economic services. Comox Councillor Ken Grant objected to any funding or initiative to promote mountain biking or improve the sport’s infrastructure because it might benefit Cumberland, where the most trails and amenities exist, but who no longer participates in the service.

Other directors were quick to point out that being known Islandwide as a mountain biking mecca brings economic benefit to all kinds of businesses across the entire Comox Valley.

In fact, it was a Comox business — the former Simon’s Cycles, now known as the Comox Bike Company — that practically invented mountain biking in the Comox Valley. There are still two bike stores in Comox and residents/taxpayers/voters often go to the Cumberland Community Forest to ride.

And yet, Comox wants support for its own marina and Comox Valley Airport projects.

Here’s the problem. Everything was working fine for Comox until the new blood turned its attention to the CV Economic Development Society. Now, no longer in the majority, the town sees its influence and benefits drifting toward other areas of the community. And they don’t like it.

So, they’ve started a statutory service review of the regional district’s economic development service under the Local Government Act. But the regional district had already scheduled a complete review and reimagining of the service for next year.

It doesn’t seem to make sense. Except, the formalized service review includes a provision for Comox to withdraw from the service if it doesn’t like the outcome, which it probably won’t. This is the same process requested by Cumberland when it decided to withdraw.

Comox Mayor Russ Arnott implied in a statement to Decafnation this week that the town doesn’t intend to withdraw. But what other benefit exists for going the formal route over the already planned informal route?

Well, the public can’t discern the town’s motive or long-term goals of this action because Mayor Arnott has locked up his pack of councillors from speaking about it without his permission.

When Decafnation asked councillors for more explanation and for their personal opinion on what they hoped this action would achieve, they refused to talk.

Councillor Alex Bissinger said the council decided that only the mayor could speak on the topic to avoid “mixed messages.” In other words, any slight deviation from the company line might cause trouble.

Heaven forbid that a Comox council member might have an opinion that differs from the rest of the council or whose feelings about an issue might present a perspective that hasn’t been pre-vetted. Imagine the chaos that would ensue!

By comparison, Courtenay council members regularly disagree with each other and express their views openly for public consumption. By Comox council standards, it’s a wonder the city gets anything accomplished. But they do and their constituents usually know what they’re doing and why.

So the CV Economic Development Society drama will now play out in a formalized setting without all the voices at the table. Only one representative from Comox and Courtenay will be able to participate.

Even the recently formed Economic Development Select Committee will meet this week to fold up its tents. It had been charged to investigate efficiencies and cost savings from integrating CVEDS activities and office space with the regional district.

But that committee’s effort was probably going nowhere anyway. CV Economic Development Society Executive Director John Watson has arranged for new office space in … wait for it …

Comox Town Hall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Comox, Area C may derail regional economic development planning

Comox, Area C may derail regional economic development planning

The Comox public marina  |  George Le Masurier photo

Comox, Area C may derail regional economic development planning

By George Le Masurier

Another controversy has erupted over the Comox Valley Economic Development Society, highlighting once again how the community’s political shift has caused turmoil behind the scenes.

In a move that surprised many Comox Valley Regional District directors and staff, the Comox Town Council along with Area C Director Edwin Grieve have disrupted a plan to start discussing the best method of providing a regional economic development service.

Two weeks ago, CVRD directors held a special workshop as a first step toward finding consensus among the board about whether the existing Comox Valley Economic Development Society is still the best method for providing economic development services or if the 32-year-old model needed some reforms.

Although there are hard-line differences of opinion between Comox and Area C and the rest of the regional district board, directors appeared to leave the workshop thinking they had made progress on a path forward.

But just 10 days after the workshop, the seven-member Comox Town Council voted unanimously to initiate a formal service review of the regional economic development function. It’s unclear who Director Grieve consulted, but he also sent a similar letter to the CVRD.

The Local Government Act allows participants in a municipal service to initiate a review of the service or to withdraw from it. The act also specifies the process for both and for dispute resolution.

Part 10, Division 6 of the act specifies that “a preliminary meeting must be held within 120 days” of the written notice to establish the process for the review. It states further that negotiations must begin within 60 days of the preliminary meeting.

The long end of those timelines would delay discussions about how to deliver economic development services for six months.

At the workshop, directors were urged by the consultant facilitator to begin discussions immediately about whether they wanted to continue with the Comox Valley Economic Development Society as it’s currently structured, reform it or replace it with a new service delivery model.

The facilitator pressed directors to have a preferred option for going forward by next December, a year before the current CVEDS two-year contract expires on Dec. 31, 2022.

It’s unknown at this time how this formal service review might affect the board’s plans unofficially made at the workshop. Directors could carry on concurrently with the formal review or wait for the outcome at its conclusion.

One major factor that differentiates a formal service review from the board’s own informal considerations is who gets to participate. The whole board attended the workshop and all directors had input into their agreed-upon strategies.

But The Local Government Act specifies that during a service review only one representative from each participant engages in the negotiations. That means just one director from Courtenay, Comox and Areas A, B and C. It’s not clear who would represent the CVRD, if anyone, as Board Chair Jesse Ketler is a Cumberland Councillor and the Village is not a participant in the service.

 

WHY A SERVICE REVIEW

The Village of Cumberland and Hornby and Denman islands followed the service review process when they individually withdrew from the economic development function.

But in a statement to Decafnation, Comox Mayor Russ Arnott denied the town was preparing to withdraw.

“Our current staff have full-time jobs and commitments, so the idea that they could take on the economic development portfolio is just not realistic,” he said.

However, neither Area C Director Grieve or any of the Comox councillors contacted by Decafnation have responded to questions about why they took this formal action rather than working through the process discussed at the recent workshop.

But Comox Mayor Arnott said his council started the review because he believes there has been a breakdown in governance and direction of the economic development service.

“For the past few years select members of the service have been constantly criticising the independent work of CVEDS,” he told Decafnation Tuesday. “This has led to dysfunction and inefficiency during the most important economic development challenge in a generation as well as a major loss in experience with staff and board members resigning.

“Our goal is to make this service once again work for Comox and the communities in the valley.”

Three CVEDS board members have recently resigned. Three staff members were laid off and one, Lara Greasly, quit to take a job with the Town of Comox.

In its press release, the Town of Comox noted five achievements it attributed to CVEDS work that “have added countless jobs, enjoyment, and prosperity to the entire valley.”

They were: expansion of the Comox Valley Airport, the evolution of the BC Seafood Festival, enhancements of Marina Park in Comox, the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue training centre at CFB Comox and the redevelopment of Comox Mall.

In his letter to the regional district, Area C Director Grieve also noted the society’s three decades of “bringing benefit to the region.”

“However, over the past two years, this independence has been severely eroded leading to resignations from members of the society’s staff and executive alike,” he wrote. “This in effect puts it at odds to the “Society Act” and doing so turns it into yet another arm of local government exposing it to vagaries the local politics.”

 

BEHIND THE SCENES

Disagreement at the regional district board has historically often split along the border between Comox and Courtenay. This has become a sharper line since the 2018 municipal elections brought new and more progressive directors to the CVRD board table, and including changes in Areas A and B.

CVRD Director Ken Grant, a Comox councillor, has been vocal at recent board meetings about his disapproval of the changes made to the CVEDS contract and the active role directors have taken toward integration of shared services and setting the society’s work plans.

Sources close to the board say Grant has talked behind the scenes about withdrawing from the economic development function and putting that money into the town’s marina development plans. And he has publicly expressed hostile views about economic development funds going into projects promoted by other directors, such as agriculture, arts and culture and mountain biking infrastructure.

Other directors have starkly different views of economic development that include social and environmental values that they say better represent the shift in community priorities. These directors have pressed CVEDS to include projects in their work plan that address, for example, child care and support for non-profit organizations.

The CVRD board has always had contractual final approval over CVEDS work plans, although past boards have provided almost no oversight or input.

That this board has been more aggressive in setting CVEDS work plans and demanding accountability, and cut its $1.2 million budget by a third, has rankled those who were happy with the status quo.

 

WHAT’S NEXT

The CVRD board will likely get a report from its staff about the service review process at either the Nov. 17th Committee of the Whole meeting or at the full board meeting on Nov. 24.

This article has been updated to include portions of Area C Director Edwin Grieve’s letter to the regional district asking for a service review of the economic development function.

 

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Regional District terminates CVEDS contract, opposing views were too entrenched

CVRD initiates discussions about Economic Development Society reforms

Comox Valley Regional District offices now located on Harmston Avenue in Courtenay  |  George Le Masurier photo

CVRD initiates discussions about Economic Development Society reforms

By George Le Masurier

Directors of the Comox Valley Regional District have initiated discussions to explore new models for delivering economic development, destination marketing and Visitor Center operations that could potentially realign the Comox Valley Economic Development Society, or even replace it.

It will be the first time in the society’s 32-year history that regional directors have considered reviewing the original model of an arms-length society governed by an independently chosen board of directors.

The consideration was reached toward the end of a two-day workshop held Oct. 13-14 at the regional district’s new offices on Harmston Avenue in Courtenay. The session was facilitated by an outside consultant after conflicting visions for CVEDS’ future had brought the board to a stalemate.

The CVRD created the Economic Development Society in 1988 and continues to fund it. In recent years, CVEDS has received more than $1.2 million per year from Comox Valley taxpayers.

But it had become apparent over several years that CVEDS had lost the trust of some elected officials as well as individuals, nonprofit organizations and businesses across sectors of the Comox Valley. 

CVRD directors seeking change from CVEDS have mentioned the need for more accountability, transparency, especially in financial matters, and whether the society’s recent activities still remain relevant and consistent with the Comox Valley community’s environmental and social values.

During the workshop, Area A Director Daniel Arbour noted that four out of the five Comox Valley jurisdictions funding CVEDS had “at one time or another” considered reviewing or withdrawing their participation, for various reasons.

FURTHER READING: Go to our local government page

He was referring to his own electoral area, Area B, the Town of Comox and the city of Courtenay as those who have at least thought about withdrawing. Electoral Area C is the fifth participant currently funding CVEDS.

Any electoral area or municipality can opt-out of CVEDS participation by giving six months notice. That is still an option under the new contract signed in July. But it is less likely in the near future considering the new agreement expires in two years, on Dec. 31, 2022, and the possibility that regional directors might agree on some reforms.

The Village of Cumberland withdrew support for CVEDS in 2015 and hired its own economic development officer. That became a trend on Vancouver Island as other regional districts and municipalities moved toward new models that separated destination marketing activities from economic development services. 

The CVRD’s consideration of new models would presumably explore whether to handle the three key functions of CVEDS — economic development, destination marketing and Visitor Information Centre management — with in-house staff or to contract for them with an external entity, or some hybrid combination.

Workshop facilitator Gordon Macintosh, the former Islands Trust executive director, urged CVRD directors to decide soon if they want to explore new models for delivering the services provided by CVEDS.

It was important, he said, for directors to reach consensus and to have preferred options in mind before having to give CVEDS notice of the regional district’s long-term intentions next December.

Directors did not take any formal action or vote during the workshop. It’s expected that will happen after CVRD Chief Administrative Officer Russell Dyson presents a staff report with recommendations to the board.

 

WORK PLAN CLARITY

While the second day of the workshop focused on developing a process for reconsidering the strategic future of the Comox Valley Economic Development Society, the first day was designed to give clarity to CVEDS’ 2021 work plan and how regional district directors would measure their success.

Meeting by themselves in the morning, CVRD directors created a list of topics directors would like CVEDS to consider adding into their 2021 work plan. A few CVEDS board members and Executive Director John Watson joined the workshop in the afternoon.

Most of the topics were related to a feeling that CVEDS activities should acknowledge the Comox Valley community’s values, and weave the regional board’s four core values into their business relationships:

  1. Reconciliation and First Nations relations;
  2. Financial responsibility;
  3. Climate change action; and,
  4. Community partnerships. And that they should weave these into their business relationships.

Asked to imagine their ideal economic development function, CVRD Board Chair Jesse Ketler said she envisioned a current and forward-thinking group that “was on top of the shift in societal values.”

“CVEDS was created in the 1980s when everyone was talking about deregulation and free-market capitalism. The only goal then was short-term profit and the result was social/wealth inequality and environmental degradation,” she said. “People now realize that we have to look at the long game and that sustainable businesses are those that consider environmental and social values.”

Ketler said businesses that included social and environmental values into their business model were doing better through the COVID pandemic than those that didn’t.

“People want to be a part of something good. If we try to apply ‘80s style solutions to COVID-era problems we are doing the businesses in the Comox Valley a great disservice,” she said.

Courtenay City Councillor Wendy Morin added that “the polarization on the board, although appearing along political lines, is a simplistic view. Many of us see that economic development practice is shifting, regardless of the politics of the day.”

CVEDS has about six weeks to respond to those requests — either to agree to do them, ask for more resources in order to do them, or to defer them — before its 2021 work plan and accompanying budget receive final approval from the CVRD board.

The topics included: Childcare, event guide and promotion, E-marketplace feasibility, destination infrastructure, co-working spaces, green industry, an arts and culture plan and an agriculture plan.

 

OPINIONS DIFFER

Although the perspective on CVEDS differs among all 10 of the regional district directors, at their simplest they break down into two groups: those who are happy with the current CVEDS structure (Town of Comox, Area C) and those who are less happy (City of Courtenay, Area B and Area A).

Courtenay City Councillor Wendy Morin wondered how the board could overcome entrenched positions based on geographical self-interests.

“How do we get to some common ground when there is such a disconnect between the experiences of Comox and Courtenay in the level of response on pet projects,” she said at the workshop. “Why are some areas getting what they want (from CVEDS) and others are not? How are we going to satisfy all these interests on a regional level?”

Differing perspectives based on territory emerged clearly during a discussion on the importance of mountain biking to the Comox Valley economy.

Comox Councillor Ken Grant said he had trouble with CVEDS spending tax money to promote mountain biking because it benefits Cumberland, which doesn’t help fund CVEDS.

But several other directors said mountain biking benefits businesses across the whole Comox Valley, yet Cumberland bears the burden of maintaining and improving the infrastructure of the most popular trails that bring tourists to the community.

“I have trouble with that. Our marina is the biggest economic driver in the Comox Valley,” Grant said. “So we could ask for money for that, too? Not sure we want to go down that road.”

But Area B Director Arzeena Hamir pointed out that Comox is seeking help from CVEDS and other jurisdictions to build out more parking infrastructure at the Comox Airport.

Similar differences of opinion occurred during discussions on other topics.

Comox Mayor Russ Arnott said Comox business owners had no lack of confidence in CVEDS.

“I guess it depends on who you talk to,” he said.

Area C Director Edwin Grieve said he was troubled by the undercurrent that “something untoward is going on.”

“These people (CVEDS board members) stepped up as volunteers. It’s disrespectful. It’s why directors have resigned. We owe them an apology,” he said.

Chair Ketler talked about the need to “relocalize” the Comox Valley economy.

“One way to do that is through social procurement and supporting social enterprise,” she said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE WORKSHOP

When CVRD directors failed to find agreement in March on what they wanted from their $1 million-plus funding of the Comox Valley Economic Development Society, regional district staff suggested a workshop designed to break the logjam. But the provincial lockdown to stop the spread of the COVID virus derailed those plans.

Board Chair Jesse Ketler revived the workshop idea this fall and Gordon Macintosh, president of the Local Government Leadership Institute and the former executive director of the Islands Trust, was hired to facilitate it.

It’s possible that Macintosh would return to help CVRD directors navigate through the process of exploring new models for providing economic development and destination marketing services, and how to manage the Visitor Information Center operations in the future. But directors have only initiated discussions so far and have not taken any official actions.

 

 

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