Unified voice pitched for promoting Greater Victoria

A proposal to fund a new regional economic development agency will go to the capital region’s 13 local municipal councils for consideration following a weekend economic summit.

“It was a fairly monumental event and things are looking very favourable in terms of us creating a new [economic development] organization,” said Dan Dagg, chair of the Greater Victoria Economic Development Agency. “It would be one of the biggest things this region has done in a decade at least.”

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Local politicians were equally enthusiastic.

“The overall upshot seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm,” said View Royal Mayor David Screech.

“It was thrilling,” said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, one of the driving forces behind the summit.

The meeting at Camosun College was convened by mayors and the Greater Victoria Development Agency. It was attended by 45 local politicians as well as representatives from First Nations, the University of Victoria and Camosun College, local chambers of commerce and the private sector.

The existing Greater Victoria Economic Development Agency is essentially a committee of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce and receives about $90,000 annually from the chamber, $80,000 in municipal funding from only Saanich and Victoria, about $10,000 from UVic and other smaller amounts.

By contrast, the new organization is projecting an annual operating budget of about $700,000 with core staffing of about 5.5 full-time equivalent jobs.

“We’ve got a ton of private-sector support already. They’re all more than willing to come to the table, but it’s all based on municipal participation,” Dagg said.

“So the private sector is saying ‘Yeah, we’ll fund it as long as the municipalities come to the table with their fair share.’ ”

Committed non-municipal participants include Tourism Victoria and the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, along with about a dozen private business, Dagg said.

In many respects, Greater Victoria has been resting on its laurels, relying on the area’s natural beauty to attract investment and development, Screech said. Other regions in the country with active economic development programs have been leaving the B.C. capital in their dust. In the past five years Greater Victoria has dropped to 27th from fourth in gross domestic product. Areas such as Kitchener-Waterloo and Halifax invest the equivalent of $3 to $4 per capita on economic development and, closer to home, Nanaimo and Vancouver invest $4 per capita.

Greater Victoria’s municipalities currently spend less than $1 per capita. “I was astonished to learn that our average for the whole region is about 50 cents per capita that we spend on economic development,” Screech said.

“That really concerned me. When you look out into the future in terms of skilled trades and good jobs and keeping university graduates here, I think we’ve just relied for too long on the fact that this is a beautiful place to live so people are going to come here no matter what. It’s just time for us to get away from that,” Screech said.

If the majority of local councils agree to sign on, the existing Greater Victoria Development Agency would fold “and then a completely new organization, still to be named, would form,” Screech said.

The aim of the new organization is to undertake a five-year pilot project to:

• increase the number of new jobs in targeted sectors

• increase median household incomes

• sustain and leverage federal funding for major economic development projects, with a proposed target of $9 million over five years (up from a current $900,00)

It is hoped that municipalities will provide $3 million over five years based on a funding formula that is a 50/50 blend of $1 per capita plus 0.07 per cent of total tax collected.

Helps said the proposal will move ahead if seven of the 13 municipalities agree to fund it.

“I’m very optimistic that we’re going to get even more than that because the people who put the money in and say yes to a commitment in principle to fund this for five years are the people who get to pick the first board of directors; pick the name for the new organization and really lay the ground work,” Helps said. “There’s incentive to join at the beginning.”

The summit was told that the federal Western Economic Diversification Department forecasts $140 million a year will be available for economic development and the capital region has the potential to boost its share to $10 million.

Other potential funding sources include Investment Agriculture Foundation of B.C., B.C. Knowledge Development Fund, Canada Foundation for Innovation, Sustainable Development Technology Canada and Invest Canada Community Initiatives.

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