In Conversation: October 2018

By Terry Whitehead, Managing Partner

October 2018 is a busy month in the professional lives of local government executives across British Columbia. Municipal elections are set for October 20 when residents will elect their Mayors and Councillors for the next four years. Three days prior, on October 17, BC residents, and all Canadians, will wake up to legal cannabis, and communities across the country will contend with new economic and social challenges and opportunities.

In anticipation of these events, Alexander Whitehead interviewed nine Chief Administration Officers of communities across the province about their successes, challenges, and upcoming priorities. We discovered that small communities are addressing issues some might normally associate only with large urban centres, such as climate change, housing affordability, and addictions. But for every challenge there are opportunities. Communities are investing in infrastructure and successfully diversifying their economies to attract people and businesses. Quality of life indicators—lower cost of living, less traffic, and access to recreational opportunities—are value propositions smaller BC communities can offer young families and retirees.

In Conversation highlights the current state of the nation in nine diverse and dynamic communities in British Columbia.

City of Campbell River

City Manager: Deborah Sargent

At first glance, the City of Campbell River, situated on the east coast of Vancouver Island, appears to be a quiet and comfortable community where its 37,000 residents enjoy a high quality of life and a slower pace. A deeper look uncovers an energized community with roots into diverse industries ranging from aerospace to food manufacturing to forestry.

“Easy access by air, water, and land, combined with excellent infrastructure position Campbell River to support growth in a variety of sectors,” explains Deborah Sargent, CAO. “Our modernized airport, which can support aircrafts up to Boeing 737s, contributes to our ability to provide essential infrastructure services to local industry which helps to diversify our local economy.”

Campbell River’s economy benefits from success in aerospace, including ASAP Avionics which uses their expertise in maintaining, repairing and installing avionics, as well as forestry which represents six percent of the local labour force. Three of the world’s leading aquaculture companies make Campbell River the home of their North American headquarters. Other priority sectors for development include tourism and the creative industries.

“We have an increasingly supportive ecosystem for businesses in the technology sector,” says Ms. Sargent. “Several industry organizations, a forward-thinking local government, and provincial tax incentives all combine with our lifestyle and quality of life to attract entrepreneurs and businesses to Campbell River. We have won awards and gained regional, provincial, and international recognition for CRadvantage, our municipal broadband network that provides enterprise level connectivity for downtown organizations managing high volumes of data.”

Campbell River City Council has also succeeded in deepening the relationship with its citizens through expanding public communications, improving relations with First Nations neighbours, and by establishing a 10-year Financial Stability and Resiliency Plan which features predictable funding and service delivery for the long term. Other initiatives include revitalizing the downtown core, both for economic gains and in recognition of social needs. “We are the service hub for the region,” summarizes Ms. Sargent, “and we are committed to caring for our vulnerable citizens. We do this with support from BC Housing and Island Health and social service agencies that provide emergency shelters and meal programs. It is important to focus resources to help people connect with the broader community.”

City of Fort St. John

City Manager: Dianne Hunter

For several years, Fort St. John has been the epicentre of public discussion over energy and resource development in BC. Oil and gas operations and pipeline development are a part of life for the vibrant community of 23,000 people, and only seven kilometres separate the massive Site C hydroelectric dam development from the downtown core. Fort St. John has first-hand experience about how small communities should handle resource development, and it is sharing this experience with the world.

“Local leaders have to understand the needs of the community and how they align with responsible resource development,” explains Dianne Hunter, City Manager. “Council and city staff have worked collaboratively to understand the issues that impact a resource community, issues such as environmental assessments, water management, clean air, mobile workforces, and affordable housing. It’s been a steep learning curve.”

One of several positive outcomes of this learning process has been the establishment of a coalition of municipalities in northern British Columbia. This coalition shares information about how to understand community needs and address resource development issues that balance long-term community planning with the needs of industry. This information is shared not only among the regional communities, but also globally, reaching small resource-driven communities as far away as Peru and Colombia.

“We have invited mayors from around the world to Fort St. John to be part of the larger conversation around energy literacy and the importance of supporting responsible resource development and stewardship of energy” adds Ms. Hunter. “This means that everyone—communities, citizens, and industry—benefits from energy development projects and everyone uses that energy responsibly. Projects such as utilizing renewable energy, using non-potable water for industrial use, and building energy-efficient buildings are all part of an integrated strategy that will ensure our communities are not left worse off from resource development like those in other parts of the world.

City of Kamloops

CAO: David Trawin

With over 90,000 residents and a catchment area in excess of 132,000 people, Kamloops is the largest community in the Thompson-Nicola Regional District. This dynamic interior city has carefully executed its 2015–2018 Strategic Plan that focused on five priorities: Environment, Economy, Infrastructure, Livability, and Governance. “Most of our completed initiatives related to Liveability, Infrastructure, and Governance,” summarizes David Trawin, a sixteen-year veteran of City administration, including the past six years as CAO. “We successfully implemented the Asset Management Program, developed a public engagement toolkit, enhanced relations with First Nations and local business groups, and established better fiscal accountability protocols.”

As the economic and social hub of the district, Kamloops generates over $4.3 billion in economic activity, thanks to a diversified economy that supports both traditional industries such as natural resources and manufacturing, alongside emerging industries including hi-tech, green energy, and education. Kamloops has also completed several steps in anticipation of legal cannabis. “We have zoning in place, business licensing fees and requirements in place, and referral procedures to Council in place,” explains Mr. Trawin. “Kamloops was a member of the provincial government’s Joint Task Force on Cannabis and we are taking a wait-and-see approach to determine future opportunities and risks for the community.”

Kamloops wrestles with social issues consistent with larger urban centres and has the tools in place to address them. “Homelessness, opiate use, and lack of additional beds are probably the biggest social issues we face,” says Mr. Trawin. “We have a dedicated city staff for social issues, a social plan, a housing plan, a Community Action Team, and a well-established relationship with BC Housing.”

Town of Qualicum Beach

CAO: Daniel Sailland

For a community of just 9,000, the Town of Qualicum Beach on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island is confronting a critical issue faced by global cities a thousand times its size. Climate change and rising sea levels have forced civic leaders to confront future infrastructure issues. “We completed a waterfront master plan,” explains Daniel Sailland, “that involved data collection and sea level modelling which demonstrated possible coastal property and infrastructure impacts based on future sea levels, current tide movements, and storm frequencies. The plan identified priorities and the last four years saw the development of waterfront and storm-water infrastructure built to address these future changes.”

With the future infrastructure plan in place, the scenic community can now focus on more short-term objectives. The Town is preparing for cannabis legalization by piloting the sale of cannabis through a temporary use permit process on property that is owned by the Town. “The company that will be licensed to provide these sales will be paying rent to the Town. This allows us the opportunity to monitor the impacts both as a landlord and as a community,” says Mr. Sailland. “Town bylaws, zoning, and appropriate rents will be reviewed and amended based on the real impacts experience by the community.”

Diversifying the economy and addressing social issues remain important objectives for Mr. Sailland’s staff of 60. Beyond supporting the local businesses and tourism, the Town has been working with partners to ensure that government-controlled areas that can make a difference for business are enhanced, including the local airport, local and regional bus services, trail and roadway improvements, high speed connectivity and free WIFI zones. Outside of these controlled areas, the Town has worked with industry to create tech incubation areas, favorable film sector practices, and affordable housing partnerships.

“Homelessness and addictions have manifested in our community with an increase in tent camps and improperly discarded needles” explains Mr. Sailland. “The Town made financial and land contributions in support of housing and service development initiatives, including needle exchange and buyback programs. The Town is lobbying the Province to fully fund a needle collection program. Health matters, including harm reduction initiatives, are a Provincial responsibility and should be supported and funded appropriately.”

City of Rossland

CAO: Bryan Teasdale

Resiliency and long-term sustainability have been priorities for the City of Rossland over the past four years. A dream location for outdoor enthusiasts, this West Kootenay community is known as the Mountain Bike Capital of Canada. Winter activities include skiing and snowshoeing in the Monashee mountains, and it is during the cold weather season that Rossland sees an influx of tourists. Infrastructure investment, both physical and human capital, have been key to supporting Rossland’s tourism sector. “Over the past four years we were able to revamp and update the City’s current Asset Management Investment Plan which helped us ensure a sustainable and resilient community with diverse, affordable, and sustainable infrastructure,” explains CAO Bryan Teasdale. “We were also successful in attracting highly qualified City staff for some key senior roles that will stabilize our workforce for years to come.”

These investments will help the community of nearly 3,800 residents benefit economically from its reputation as a top year-round tourist destination. An increase in business and residential development, along with a new $60 million hotel, suggests a robust future with a more diverse tax base. This increase in development does have consequences similar to those in larger cities and resort communities.

“Within the Greater Trail area, Rossland residential real estate are the highest,” notes Mr. Teasdale. “This leads to higher rental pricing and affordability issues, which presents barriers to the lower wage earners who work in tourism. We have partnered with the BC Housing and the Columbia Basin Trust to develop a permanent rental facility for workforce housing to address affordable housing which is critical to Rossland’s long-term economic viability.”

District of Summerland

CAO: Linda Tynan

For the District of Summerland, emergency preparedness and planning for long-term needs are just two of the priority objectives actively underway. Nestled in the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen between Penticton and Kelowna, the historic lakeside community is also effectively balancing a growing economy while maintaining a family-friendly, small town way of life.

“Response to emergencies is becoming a “new normal” in Summerland,” explains Linda Tynan, CAO. “Over the past two years, Summerland has experienced spring flooding and wildfires within municipal boundaries, and both required evacuation of residents and local response. “Spring flooding damaged lakeshore infrastructure, and wildfires hampered tourism. Our staff went over and above to protect critical municipal infrastructure and assist residents affected by the emergencies.”

Quality of life enhancement is another important objective. “Council identified the need to strengthen the arts and culture sector in the community,” notes Ms. Tynan. “A task force engaged in public consultations and one result was the former library is now designated as an Arts and Cultural Centre.” Another key priority for Council was investment in alternative forms of energy, and the community is in the rare position of owning the municipal electric utility.

“We are currently working on a $6 million solar and battery storage project that will be integrated into Summerland’s Electrical Utility. Council made a commitment to sustainable initiatives and we have been extremely active in replacing streetlights with LEDs, hiring a sustainability coordinator, and redeveloping our climate action plan.”

Like many other communities, Summerland is confronting social issues related to the ongoing opioid crisis. “It has become apparent that we are susceptible to health and safety issues related to drug use and that more action is required to provide education and resources to those vulnerable to addiction including those attending local schools,” says Ms. Tynan. “The question remains whether the legalization of cannabis will affect this issue either in a positive or negative manner—but small communities such as Summerland have recognized that they are not protected from effects of the opioid crisis.”

City of Trail

CAO: David Perehudoff

Since 2015, urban renewal has been a primary objective for the City of Trail City Council and, the recent results in infrastructure investment have been dramatic. At a cost of just under $16 million, the Columbia River Skywalk, a 1,000-foot suspension bridge, was the largest capital project in the City’s history and an indication of good things to come for this interior community of 8,000 residents. The outcome was a resounding success and the bridge has earned several architectural awards.

“This was an extremely complex project,” explains David Perehudoff, CAO. “The bridge also carries the regional sewer trunk line, the city water line, a fibre optic conduit, and a four-metre-wide pedestrian/cycling walkway. Financing the project required engaging other regional partners who provided funding.” Building bridges is an appropriate metaphor for Trail. The completion of the Trail Riverfront Centre integrates a new library, museum, archives, and visitor centre. A new terminal and runway rehabilitation at the Trail Regional Airport connect local residents with national and international business opportunities. “These improvements further support our flourishing economic development initiatives, known as MetalTech Alley, that are garnering national and international attention,” says Mr. Perehudoff. “The airport improvements offer commercial services and ancillary services such as medivac that is so critical to our regional hospital.”

The City has prepared for cannabis legalization by amending zoning by-laws to allow for retail sales and finalizing a Workplace Substance Management Policy for the City’s 140 staff address both disciplinary actions and support for substance abuse. Mr. Perehudoff and his team have collaborated with the RCMP over issues that will impact the community. “At this juncture it is hard to assess the full gamut of risks that recreational cannabis will bring. Public health and safety are definite concerns, and understanding the responsibilities at the federal, provincial, and local levels need to be understood.”

District of Tumbler Ridge

CAO: Jordan Wall

The District of Tumbler Ridge, nestled in the foothills of the Rockies in northeastern BC, is a case study in resilience. The community of 2,300 grew quickly because of the boom in coal mining, experiencing first-hand the highs and lows related to the volatility of natural resources. It has emerged from these cycles better prepared for a bright future.

“As an instant-built community much of our infrastructure re-investment has come due at the same time,” explains Joran Wall, CAO. “Over the past few years our average infrastructure replacement spend has nearly quadrupled while we repaired our water monitoring system, waste water system, begun repaving, repairing our buildings, numerous fleet replacements, and other items upgraded or replaced entirely.”

This investment in physical infrastructure runs parallel to other investments in social programs and economic diversification. “Our push into wind power has resulted in 15-20 permanent positions in our community as well as over $2 million per year in industrial tax revenue,” explains Mr. Wall. “In tourism we built a new visitor information center and tourism website. In 2013 we had 2,000 visitors come through out information center; in 2017 we recorded over 13,000. We’ve also been able to secure Provincial approval for our Community Forest to double in size which will hopefully allow a further expansion of permanent forestry related positions.”

Mr. Wall and his team of 45 staff are prepared for the arrival of legal cannabis in October. By-laws have been passed to prohibit public consumption, and a business license bylaw allows for retail operations.

According to Mr. Wall, the emerging need for the community is access to medical services. “After the initial mine shutdowns in 2000, Tumbler Ridge was marketed as a community for retirees to purchase inexpensive homes. This population has now aged and driving to access medical services is not feasible. Our community currently provides a grant to a not-for-profit to take weekly trips to regional hospitals. This service is, however, becoming overburdened and a more permanent solution is needed.”

City of Williams Lake

CAO: Milo Macdonald

What a difference a year makes. The summer of 2017 saw devastating wildfires destroy hundreds of thousands of hectares across British Columbia, and the residents of the Williams Lake and the Cariboo region were at ground zero of the wildfires. Milo Macdonald, CAO, served as Emergency Operations Centre Director and oversaw the evacuation of the community and the measures taken to avoid damage within the city limits.

“We survived this natural disaster thanks to the resiliency of the Cariboo people and their extraordinary volunteer spirit,” recalls Mr. Macdonald. “The support of a number of groups—the provincial and federal governments, the RCMP, the Red Cross—and the volunteer spirit of our residents who staffed various social services got us through the experience.”

Fast forward 14 months and the community of 11,000 people are enjoying a normal routine. The 130 members of City staff have successfully introduced new measures and policies to manage assets, strengthen financial processes, and increase customer service levels across city operations. “We have decreased bureaucracy which has contributed to the strongest construction and investment climate in recent memory,” observes Mr. Macdonald.

Forestry, mining, and agriculture are the primary industries that drive the Williams Lake economy. Mr. Macdonald estimates local industry and small business generate approximately $1 billion of economic activity per annum. Like most BC communities, economic diversification is a top priority for the community.

“We are heavily reliant on cyclical industries that follow global commodity prices” explains Mr. Macdonald. “Our recent focus has been on identifying industries that have lower volatility and provide value to our residents. We attracted a care home facility which will contribute 100 jobs to our economy. Several smaller scale projects are underway all of which are unrelated to our main industries, and we recently came back from a trip to China designed to stimulate investment.”

Cannabis also offers some opportunity for diversification, and Williams Lake is prepared for the impact of legalization and the potential opportunities this offers. “We have set the tone early that we are receptive to locating industrial cannabis facilities in appropriate sites,” says Mr. Macdonald. “Several investors are actively working towards facilities in Williams Lake and we do expect to see this industry contribute moderately to our community. Properly managed, we see very little downside.”