Discussions around the city’s economic development budget at a Feb. 8 round table council meeting turned into a conversation about the community’s future and growth.
Port Alberni’s economic development department was set up a few years ago to achieve a diverse and sustainable economy in the Valley by identifying and promoting economic development opportunities for the community.
According to the draft of the 2017-2021 financial plan, the department will have only small reductions in funding for trade shows and other external promotions, and no inflationary increase for advertising and marketing, for a total budget increase of five percent.
“The marketing and advertising budget, which is the largest chunk of the budget next to staffing, has stayed at the same level across the board,” economic development manager Pat Deakin further explained.
Deakin says the department has been making more use of social media, but hard copy advertising, in airports or on BC Ferries, for example, is still an effective tool in tourism. “In that instance if we didn’t have an ad in there, we wouldn’t (exist) to some people in the world,” he said.
The budget shows a substantial reduction in revenue after 2018, due to the funds that come from the Rural Dividend Program, a contract that ends in 2018.
Deakin said the department will be sending a second application in to the program.
There also may not be as many funds coming from the regional district.
“I received a note from the CAO of the Regional District that the west coast will not be contributing to the economic development function, at least this year,” he added.
“Not a big surprise to me, because they don’t get anywhere near the attention or service level that the city does with my work.”
To accomplish many of the department’s projects currently in place, like the city’s rebranding, the SPROUT program, and the Johnston Road Charrette, Deakin said the department will likely have to pull money out of the advertising and marketing portion of the budget.
He had some suggestions for investments the city could make in economic development, if there is an opportunity.
Other than marketing and advertising, he said he would like to see a fund available for consultants. He has pushed for an increased investment in strategic planning work and consulting around the airport. “By the time all is said and done we’ll have invested $8 million [regionally] in the airport. And while the Coulson Group does have some expansion plans and we certainly hope they’ll materialize, there are many twists and turns in what happens in business,” he said.
“So in the same way that we don’t put all of our eggs in one basket, I don’t think it’s smart to have all of our eggs in the Coulson Group basket.”
Deakin also brought up the city of Quesnel, which recently launched a successful community rebranding campaign to attract Lower Mainland residents with the draw of short commutes and affordable housing. By the time Quesnel is finished with their rebranding project, they will have invested $160,000 in it.
“I think Quesnel is a good comparison for us,” he went on. “They’re a slightly smaller community but they have some of the same challenges we do. Not only with their industry, but the way they’ve been viewed online by the public.”
Councillor Ron Paulson commended economic development as a department, suggesting that it’s more important than many people in the community recognize.
“It’s something I feel the community needs,” he said. “It’s tough when we look across the fence at communities like Cowichan Valley, Nanaimo, Oceanside and Campbell River who really throw a significant amount of resources towards their economic development.
“I personally feel that economic development is something that is going to have to lead the way in order for us to get to the 20,000 people in our community that we’re looking for.”
Deakin also said that the department hopes to begin working more actively with the Tseshaht, Hupacasath, Huu-ay-aht and Uchucklesaht First Nations on the economic development front.
“I know there are some who believe that investments in lifestyle are the only way to grow the community,” said Deakin. “I know there are some who believe that job creation [is] the only way to grow the community. We get feedback from sister municipalities about the importance of both.
“I think that within the discussion that council is having, there is going to be need to invest more resources in those things that will get us there.”