The chair of the Sunshine Coast economic development task force says his group is frustrated after two years of waiting by the lack of interest from local governments.
“We’re all frustrated beyond belief that it’s taken so long,” said Jim Cleghorn, past president of the Sechelt and District Chamber of Commerce and senior account manager with Royal Bank in Sechelt. “The biggest issue here is it’s been two years. Commercial ferry traffic is down, regular ferry traffic is down, businesses are closing left, right and centre, and our local government is really doing nothing.
“We’re following California — we’re going to be the greenest, brokest place in the world.”
The task force, comprising about a dozen business organizations, including the region’s three chambers of commerce, has been pushing since November 2010 for the Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) and its municipal and First Nation partners to form a commission to promote economic development for the region. The group has asked local governments to fund the initiative to the tune of at least $200,000 annually.
Cleghorn said there has been no movement from the SCRD since a July 2011 report from the chief administrative officers of each local government, which recommended the board of the new entity be controlled by elected officials, contrary to the task force members’ preference for a citizen-led body.
“Since then they’ve been apparently preparing an MOU (memorandum of understanding) and have to agree as a group amongst the four governments they will get together and fund economic development,” Cleghorn said. “They haven’t even committed yet. That’s an insult to the business community.”
SCRD board chair Garry Nohr said he saw Cleghorn’s comments about local governments dragging their feet in an e-mail sent to “task force members and friends” on Oct. 9.
“My response in reading his letter was I just felt he was not doing any favours for the business community and the economic development function,” Nohr said.
Rather than sitting idle, area directors and council reps are meeting in early November to hammer out details on funding and governance for a regional economic development office, “and then it’ll be finalized,” Nohr said.
“It’s a shame that he [Cleghorn] feels that way,” Nohr said. “But by berating or going after local governments he hasn’t helped the business community at all. What he’s doing is actually making some of the investors or funders have second thoughts about going in. It’s not very helpful.”
Despite those second thoughts by some board members, Nohr said he was confident that “in the end it’ll be done and I think it’s going to work out. I’m hoping that it all gets sorted out in the next month and we’re on our way. So he would be best to sit back and hold on for another month.”
Nohr said he had been working on the file for about three years before Cleghorn “jumped on the bandwagon,” though he admitted the task force “probably accelerated it.”
Nohr also pointed out that Gibsons Mayor Wayne Rowe is organizing the November meeting.
“The regional district is not running this. Everyone has equal input,” he said.
In his Oct. 9 e-mail, Cleghorn wrote: “The most significant economic development move the SCRD has made is to invest the regional district’s tax dollars with the North Shore Credit Union.”
In a follow-up interview, Cleghorn said the SCRD “put out a tender to some local financial institutions — not all of them — and they gave it to North Shore Credit Union.”
His criticism of the decision to deposit up to $11.5 million (between the SCRD and regional hospital district) in North Shore Credit Union is unrelated to Royal Bank not getting the bid, he said.
“It’s not about the Royal Bank. It’s about the fact that you’ve invested all those tax dollars from the Sunshine Coast in another community. And these are the people who are going to look after economic development?” he asked.
He said the SCRD’s policy is to get the best rate of interest, “but we’re suggesting they put some criteria in for local companies.”
The account would have been “huge” for Sunshine Coast Credit Union, he said.
CAO John France said North Shore Credit Union was awarded the SCRD account based on the rate of return offered, “but also responsiveness to our needs” and other factors.
SCRD’s investment policy, recently adopted by the board, and past practices do favour local companies over off-Coast firms if both come in with the same low bid, France said. “If they’re the lowest cost, they get it,” he said, noting that otherwise “we’d have to tax for that money.”
It’s also up to companies to bid “appropriately,” he added.
France said the SCRD’s investment in recreation, as one example, has a far greater economic development impact than its banking contract, which nets about $60,000 in interest. “We spend over $4 million in recreation,” he said.
If a commission does form, all parties agree that each local government will continue to pursue its own economic development strategies, while a regional body will have a different focus.
What’s needed most, Cleghorn said, is off-Coast marketing.
“Economic improvement does not happen spontaneously. What are we doing? Nothing. From a business perspective no one knows we’re here,” he said.
As examples, he said airlines and insurance companies could be approached to move their head offices to the Coast.
He agreed some officials might be reluctant to commit because they remember the region-wide economic development efforts of the mid-1980s that resulted in an explosion of salmon farms and little else.
“But it did provide a lot of jobs,” he said.