The economic future of Vancouver Island is ripe with opportunity, says Premier Gordon Campbell – if the right steps are taken in the next few years.
“You have to create a plan based on your vision,” Campbell told delegates at last week’s Vancouver Island Economic Summit held in Nanaimo.
“The faster we act, the sooner we get the benefits the people of Vancouver Island deserve.”
About 300 delegates attended the summit, which built on experience garnered from a series of seven summer workshops across the province aimed at identifying long-term regional economic opportunities.
The province is eager for development of such regional plans. The summit was presented by the area’s 14 MLAs and sponsored by businesses representing the various sectors of the region’s economy – transportation and communications, tourism, resource industries, the high-tech industry and real estate.
By 2009, Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast could have 43,000 new jobs, average wages 20 per cent higher than today and a lower unemployment rate, delegates were told.
Some of those jobs would be in new industries not dependent upon resource extraction or subject to the seasonal downturns that cause double-digit unemployment in some coastal communities.
“I believe $1.8 billion (in wages) can be added to the region,” Frank Knott, an international expert in revitalizing rural economies through regional collaboration and sharing of resources, told Business Edge.
“Any economy can turn itself around,” added Knott, president of Baltimore, Md.-based Vital Economy, an agency that has drawn roadmaps for establishing sustainable regional economies in countries around the world.
With the support of B.C.’s Small Business and Economic Development Ministry as well as the Economic Development Association of B.C., the workshops held across the province this past summer were sponsored by Burnaby-based Telus, a major sponsor for the Vancouver-Whistler bid for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
Telus, the largest telecommunications company in Western Canada, has invested about $500,000 in the Ramp Up regional development program, said company spokesman Shawn Hall. “We are positioned to help build the fastest-growing technical industry in the country – and it’s a provincewide commitment.
“We’re also committed to being good corporate citizens.”
Even small regions can compete in the global economy, noted Knott, by creating “critical mass” through economic clusters – groups of communities, governments and private industry that identify regional opportunities, share resources and collaborate on an economic plan, rather than compete for individual pieces of the economic pie.
One frequent comment during the summer workshops was that a regional approach would allow rural areas and small towns to share in economic good times generally limited to metropolitan areas. It could reduce competition between communities while at the same time optimize regional assets, said Knott.
Another advantage in a politically polarized province is that economic growth is not dependent on government and policies that can be changed abruptly after each election.
“It’s not dependent on government alone,” but relies on whole communities, Knott added. If adopted, he sees costs distributed equally among the regions, the province, the federal government and business. Benefits are shared by communities throughout the region. “The strategy will not be owned by any one sector.”
There are areas where there is a common agenda. Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast are in an ideal situation to develop economic clusters, the summit heard, for a variety of reasons. They include:
* There are identifiable, untapped regional industries such as finished wood products and high-end agricultural and aquacultural products.
* The region already has brand-name recognition, thanks largely to its ranking by Condé Nast as the No. 1 island destination in North America.
* The region can benefit from recent improvements to provincial infrastructure such as an improved rail network, streamlined regulatory policies and increased access to higher education outside of metropolitan areas.
Graham Bruce, provincial skills and labour minister, said improving the economic lot of the hinterland was part of the rationale behind the controversial BC Rail deal, which saw operations of the publicly owned BCR transferred to CN Rail.
“It’s not just a means of getting goods back and forth – it’s a means to repopulate small-town B.C.,” said Bruce.
Better transportation and communication links turn a former drawback – isolation – into a rural commodity. Investment and jobs should be attracted to small towns as employers seek lower tax rates and costs while offering workers a better quality of life, free from the stresses and expense of big-city life, said Bruce. “Every community along the way can become a manufacturing centre.”
For proof the regional planning approach can work, Islanders need only look directly south to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, visible across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Victoria. After 30 straight years of economic decline, communities there used cluster economic strategies to begin a turnaround in 2002, Knott said.
They identified five economic opportunities and set regional goals to reach before 2007, including creating 2,285 jobs with salaries of $40,000 annually while raising the salaries of 5,000 existing jobs by $5,000. They also wanted to cut the regional unemployment rate to 5.9 per cent from 7.9 per cent. The total impact of these changes is projected to add $210 million to the region’s billion-dollar gross domestic product.
This year, half way through the program, 1,745 jobs have been created with an average wage of $43,337 and salaries of 999 existing jobs have been improved by $5,000. The unemployment rate has been cut to 4.4 per cent – better than the goal. Economic impact so far: $175.3 million or 83 per cent of the goal.
And this at a time when the economic performance of the rest of the state is among the worst in the U.S.
In the new year, the region will be able to decide whether to follow its U.S. neighbour down the same economic path. By the end of 2004, Knott’s agency will present its report, estimated at about 500 pages, that will identify Games-focused economic opportunities; will identify the other regional opportunities with the greatest chance of success in today’s global economy; and will include data on national and international competition.
Then it’s up to the communities to decide whether to participate, which projects to pursue and begin to develop regional strategies.
But Knott warned turf wars present the greatest threat to success. Regional planning won’t work as long as one community believes it will lose out if a neighbouring community succeeds.
(Sharon Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)