CV governments apply for infrastructure funds to ease pandemic economic recovery

CV governments apply for infrastructure funds to ease pandemic economic recovery

Courtenay and District Museum building  |  George Le Masurier photo

CV governments apply for infrastructure funds to ease pandemic economic recovery

By George Le Masurier

All four of the Comox Valley’s local governments have applied for provincial funds designated to help BC communities recover from the economic impacts of the COVID pandemic.

The provincial government set aside $90 million to provide one-time, 100 percent funding for projects — up to $1 million each — that meet one of four objectives:

— Community economic resilience
— Destination development
— Unique heritage infrastructure
— Rural economic recovery

Projects will be chosen from the applications based on their contribution toward creating immediate new employment or re-employing laid-off workers. The projects have to begin before Dec. 31, 2021, and complete by March 31, 2023.

Decafnation asked each local government what they applied to do.

TOWN OF COMOX

Comox has applied to complete phase two of its marina enhancement plan. It hopes to receive funds for a new marine services building.

CITY OF COURTENAY

Courtenay city staff have worked with and supported the Courtenay Museum to renovate and build a new section onto the existing facility.

The city also negotiated with the provincial granting agency to get the Sixth Street bridge included. But the complexity and environmental aspects of the project could not meet the 2021 deadline for starting the construction.

VILLAGE OF CUMBERLAND

Cumberland applied to rebuild the village’s No. 2 dam, hydro generation and Unnamed Creek remediation project.

It has also applied for infrastructure development of water services on the Bevan Lands and infrastructure upgrades and improvement for Cumberland Lake Park. If the Bevan Lands project did not qualify for timing reasons, the village planned to also apply for renovations of the field house and washroom facilities at its Village Park.

In another application, Cumberland applied to the separate but related Childcare BC New Spaces Fund for up to $3 million to create new childcare spaces within the village.

COMOX VALLEY REGIONAL DISTRICT

The regional district submitted six applications, four to the federal infrastructure program and two to the province.

The federal applications include the Denman Island water treatment project, phase one of the Baynes Sound sewer extension project, a retrofit of the CV Sports Centre mezzanine area and a Shingle Spit boat launch project.

The provincial applications included expansion of the Seal Bay parking lot and the Merville Hall food hub project.

 

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3L Developments prefers to sell Riverwood land but vows to log it and extract gravel

3L Developments prefers to sell Riverwood land but vows to log it and extract gravel

Archive promotional image from 3L Developments Inc.

3L Developments prefers to sell Riverwood land but vows to log it and extract gravel

By George Le Masurier

The current spokesperson for the 3L Developments Inc. company told the Comox Valley Regional District today that “the future of the lands” is in their hands.

The spokesperson, Rob Buchan, said the company will proceed to log the property and open it up to a gravel extraction operation unless the regional district purchases the property.

The four parcels of the property have a 2020 assessed value of $4.222 million.

Buchan referred to the nearly 500 acres of land in the Puntledge Triangle — four large parcels between the Puntledge and Browns rivers — that 3L wants to subdivide into 799 housing units.

Last week, the Electoral Areas Services Commission (EASC) of the regional district rejected the company’s request to amend the Regional Growth Strategy and rezone the property for a dense subdivision. Under current zoning, the company can only subdivide 50-acre parcels. 

The EASC took their vote again in front of the full regional district board today and confirmed their rejection of 3L’s application to amend the RGS and also to direct staff to work with the company to restore public access to Stotan Falls.

Area C Director Edwin Grieve changed his vote. At last week’s EASC meeting, he voted against a motion to reject the 3L application. At today’s full board meeting, he voted in favour of rejecting 3L.

“The owner (David Dutcyvich) would prefer that the CVRD buy the lands,” Buchan said. But added that the company would proceed to the best use of the property under current zoning, which is to log and extract gravel.

No purchase price was mentioned.

Comox Director Ken Grant asked Buchan if some “middle ground” was possible.

“I’d like to say yes,” Buchan said. “But export log prices are at an all-time high, so there’s a small amount of time.”

Area C Director Edwin Grieve asked if the company had approached the City of Courtenay about annexing a portion of the property where they could develop a subdivision.

“Yes, we approached Courtenay about nine months ago,” Buchan said. “There was no appetite for annexation at the time. It’s unfortunate.”

Courtenay Director Wendy Morin wondered if there were enough high-quality gravel and timber on the land to justify logging, especially because of the riparian zones required along the river.

Buchan said he believed there was a “considerable sum of fir and cedar” trees to log and that the company had an offer from a gravel operator to buy the property earlier this year.

Morin said she was skeptical about the volume of resources and questioned whether Buchan’s information was accurate.

Regional directors also agreed to hear a presentation from Kathleen Pitt, who spoke before Buchan. She said there were only three options for the regional district: Rezone it (“in a perfect world”), buy it or stand by and watch it logged.

By not rezoning or buying the land, she said directors were “choosing” to have it logged and mined for gravel.

Courtenay Director Doug Hillian asked if Pitt was a Comox Valley resident because she gave no information about herself. But Pitt declined to answer any questions from directors.

 

WHAT IS THE ASSESSED VALUE?

If the Comox Valley Regional District pursued the purchase of the land, what price would they pay?

3L Developments has never floated a purchase price publicly and Decafnation has not been able to find public records of the price the company paid for the land in 2007.

But the assessed value of the property is public knowledge.

According to the BC Assessment office, the total 2020 assessed value of the four properties owned by 3L Developments that comprise the proposed Riverwood subdivision is $4,222,000. That represents a decline over 2019 assessed values by about $424,000.

The smallest of the four properties was the only one to increase in value while the three largest all dropped between five and 16 percent.

The largest 185-acre parcel (PID: 028-915-194) dropped from $1.642 million to $1.375 million or about 16 percent, roughly $267,000.

A 158 acre parcel (PID: 000-866-814) went down from $1.613 million to $1.411 million or about 12 percent, roughly $202,000.

The 118 acre parcel (PID: 003-922-308) fell from $563,000 to $534,000 or about five percent and roughly $29,000.

The smallest parcel of 33 acres (PID: 000-866-792) increased in assessed value from $828,000 in 2019 to $902,000 in 2020, about a nine percent jump or roughly $74,000.

There was no information on the BC Assessment website about how much 3L Developments Inc. paid for the four parcels in 2007. The website only shows last sale price information if the properties were sold within the previous three years.

This article has been updated Nov. 25 to clarify that only Electoral Areas Services Commission members voted on the 3L application and that Director Grieve changed his vote to support rejection.

 

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Regional District again rejects 3L Developments, amending regional growth strategy

Regional District again rejects 3L Developments, amending regional growth strategy

Regional District again rejects 3L Developments, amending regional growth strategy

By George Le Masurier

The Comox Valley Regional District today rejected for a second time the Riverwood housing development.

3L Developments Inc. had applied in 2017 to the regional district board and again in May of this year to the regional district’s Electoral Areas Services Commission to support amending the Regional Growth Strategy (RGS).

The company wants to develop about 500 acres in a triangle between the Browns and Puntledge rivers, but that isn’t allowed under the RGS. Their previous application was rejected by the regional district board in 2018.

But after vetting the current proposal with Comox Valley local governments, agencies and First Nations over the summer, the commission voted 2-1 to accept the regional district staff recommendation and refuse this new request.

The commission had referred the proposal to Comox Valley agencies, First Nations and the Courtenay, Cumberland and Comox municipalities for feedback. None of them responded in support of the proposal.

After a lengthy discussion that was at times testy, Commission members Daniel Arbour (Area A director) and Arzeena Hamir (Area B director) voted in favour of Arbour’s motion to refuse the request. Edwin Grieve (Area C director) voted against it.

Earlier in the meeting, Rob Buchan, a retired municipal planner representing 3L Developments, warned that the ownership group led by Dave Dutcyvich would pursue other interests on the property, including logging and gravel extraction.

Buchan presented the commission with a revised version of the proposed Riverwood development that moved the residential lots south of the Puntledge River and included space allotted for a Farmer’s Market and an ‘agriplex.’

He argued that because the local governments and agencies were referred the first version of their 2020 Riverwood proposal, but had not seen their revised version, that the referral feedback was invalid.

And he said that any feedback would only be valid if it was based on the merits of amending the RGS rather than focused “on some general concept” of the Riverwood plan.

Alana Mullaly, the CVRD’s senior manager for planning and protective services, said she was confident that local government planning directors and Chief Administration Officers understood the referral process and that they knew what they were looking at and why.

Arbour said the revised proposal felt a little like a “bait and switch” ploy by the company.

“There was an extensive public process in 2017-2018 that resulted in rejection. I expected this second kick at the can would have addressed those concerns with your best foot forward,” he said to Buchan.

3L Developments Inc. wants their property designated at a “settlement node” under the RGS that would allow denser subdivision.

But Arbour pointed out the company could apply to the City of Courtenay to expand its boundaries to include Riverwood, or to support an RGS amendment application to the regional district board.

 

TENSION AMONG DIRECTORS

Grieve, who chairs the commission, at times, invoked Biblical references and at other times seemed to chide the other directors for having “little mindsets.”

Grieve was enthusiastic during the meeting about working with 3L Developments to find a compromise that would add new parkland to the regional district’s portfolio. And making a deal would missout on a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.

“it’s all about the parkland,” he said. “It’s sad to see our natural jewels disappear.”

“Beseeching” Directors Hamir and Arbour to refer the 3L request to the full regional district board to consider initiating the amendment process, Grieve questioned the RGS sacred status.

“The RGS isn’t some chapter out of the Bible. It wasn’t handed down from the top of Mt. Washington,” he said. “It isn’t written in stone.”

He urged Hamir and Arbour to look at the “bigger picture” of gaining parkland and saving access to Stotan Falls, the popular summer swimming spot.

“We’ve got to get out of our little mindsets,” he said.

Hamir took exception to that comment, which she interpreted as Grieve calling her and Arbour small-minded.

 

WHAT THE REFERRALS SAID

None of the feedback sought by the Electoral Area Services Commission supported the application to amend the Regional Growth Strategy.

Courtenay, Comox, Cumberland and K’omoks First Nation all recommended denying 3L Developments proposal. Other agencies such as the Vancouver Island Health and the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure raised numerous concerns about the Riverwood development.

Cumberland and Courtenay recommended rejecting the proposal because it is inconsistent with the Regional Growth Strategy. Comox agreed, but added that the Town Council was interested “in a process which would return Stotan Falls to public access and use.”

K’omoks First Nations said the “application is located within the K’omoks statement of intent area; it is the interest of the K’omoks Nation to respectfully maintain our rights and access to the lands and resources throughout our territory.”

The Ministry of Transportation raised concerns about having a stormwater management plan, a geotechnical hazard assessment and confirmation of potable water and sewage disposal for each lot. They also raised the issue of dedicating the private logging road that bisects the property as a public road.

The Vancouver Island Health Authority had numerous concerns and recommendations. High on that list was that 3L Developments prove there is a sustainable water source on the property sufficient to meet the needs of the full development.

They also noted that Riverwood would be a car-dependent area that would never be walkable.

“We encourage the CVRD to consider this impact, contain urban sprawl and create complete, livable communities in line with Object 1A of the Regional Growth Strategy which states, local housing close to existing services,” VIHA wrote.

Other feedback included a comment from the Comox Valley Coalition to End Homelessness on the 3L Developments claim that Riverwood would provide affordable housing. The coalition rejected that claim.

“The interests of the coalition are unaffected as the issues of affordable and non-market housing do not appear to be addressed by the 3L proposal,” they wrote.

 

HOW WE GOT HERE

3L Developments Inc. purchased the approximately 500-acre property in 2007 and quickly logged portions of the site. In the same year, the company also proposed to develop a self-contained community to be called Riverwood.

At the time, the regional district was conducting a community-wide process to develop the Regional Growth Strategy (RGS) that was adopted as Bylaw 120 in 2010.

The regional district board originally rejected the Riverwood proposal but reconsidered it in 2018 as an application to amend the RGS at the direction of the BC Supreme Court. The regional district rejected the proposal for a second time because it was inconsistent with the RGS. 3L Developments then started another legal action to overturn that decision, but it was unsuccessful in the courts.

The regional district then amended the RGS itself to restrict who could propose amendments to the RGS. Previously, the Comox Valley Regional District was the only one in the province that allowed private parties to apply for RGS amendments.

Now only a member municipality, the Electoral Area Services Commission or the full CVRD board can request an RGS amendment and they can do so on behalf of an external agency or private party.

In May of this year, 3L Developments tried again to get approval for Riverwood by asking the Electoral Areas Services Commission to support an amendment application and refer it to the full regional district board.

The Electoral Area Services Commission voted to seek feedback from other municipalities, external agencies and First Nations before making a decision.

After receiving feedback on the application and sharing it with 3L Developments, the CVRD staff report says the developers revised their application to eliminate commercial areas, increase residential units and add areas identified as “Farmers Market” and “Agriplex.”

 

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CVRD initiates discussions about Economic Development Society reforms

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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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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