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Jack Knox: Saltspring Island lament is, ‘The ferry is killing us’

SALTSPRING ISLAND — Don’t need to spend much time polling people in Ganges to identify the big election issue here: ferry fares. Or, at least, the perception that fares are too high, keeping visitors away.
Jack Knox mugshot generic
Columnist Jack Knox

SALTSPRING ISLAND — Don’t need to spend much time polling people in Ganges to identify the big election issue here: ferry fares.

Or, at least, the perception that fares are too high, keeping visitors away.

Like many coastal communities, Saltspring has been hurting. Four eateries didn’t survive the winter, including the island’s last remaining good-sized watering hole, Moby’s Pub.

Locals know whom they blame.

“People love to come to our island, but the ferry is killing us,” says Kim Young, manager of Mouat’s, the venerable everything store at the heart of town. “It’s just so expensive.”

The message is repeated at the nearby tourism info centre. “It’s a lot of money to come from, say, Vancouver and bring kids with you,” says Laura Moore. In tourist season, it’s $198.40 return for a mainland mom, dad and two teens in a car.

Fares weren’t so much of a problem a decade ago, when Saltspring’s economy was stupid-hot. Post-9/11 Americans were flocking north in search of sanity and safety, driving up property values with their 66-cent dollars. Gas was relatively cheap. Boats filled the harbour. Everybody who wanted a job had one. The owner of the Oystercatcher restaurant not only had to hire his staff from Victoria but find them lodgings. Mouat’s didn’t get a single applicant when it advertised for a cashier.

No problem finding clerks for Mouat’s now. “There are people bringing in resumés now whom I never expected to see resumés from,” says Young. Professionals even.

“The summer of 2008 was like a switch going off,” says chamber of commerce president Matt Steffich. It has been a struggle since. And yes, the ferries are the biggest single election issue.

But Steffich, the owner of Steffich Fine Art, also thinks coastal communities aren’t doing themselves any favours by constantly complaining about fares.

“That message that the ferry fares are too high is hurting us,” he says. Perception becomes reality. Better to explain why it’s still worth it to come. Make a big deal about the experience.

And heaven knows Saltspring has much to offer. Lovely and leafy, it has more art galleries and studios than Surrey has drive-bys. Can’t throw a dulcimer without hitting a musician. The women are lithe and beautiful. The men are lithe and beautiful. Even the chickens are lithe and beautiful. If the rest of Canada dreams of moving to Victoria, Victorians stuck rotting to death in their office cubicles or the Colwood Crawl dream of Saltspring.

Indeed, 80 per cent of Saltspring’s visitors are day-trippers from the south Island. Some gulp at the $44.90 car-and-driver return fare between Fulford Harbour and Swartz Bay, which has almost doubled in a decade. Others are unfazed.

Steffich sees reason for optimism. After years of decline, visits to the tourism info centre climbed eight per cent in 2012. Six new downtown businesses opened in the last six months. Someone just signed a lease to reopen one of those closed restaurants. A new abattoir spells salvation for farmers and adherents of the local-food movement.

Third-generation islander Colin Byron had just finished a day working at the latter when encountered in Ganges. Like many in small-town coastal B.C., he cobbles together a living from a number of sources: he owns a farm, logs, builds cedar fences, cuts firewood, whatever.

Ask him what the issues are, he points to quality of education — the cash-strapped Gulf Islands school district has been on a four-day week since 2004 — and local government, or the lack thereof. The Islands Trust governs land use but is “a dog with no teeth,” he says.

That’s a perennial hot topic. Incorporation as a municipality, rejected by voters in 2002, is being studied again. That issue will be sure to get people fired up in a community where so many of the 10,500 residents are accomplished, opinionated and own a keen sense of how the place should be preserved/developed. Valdy once described Saltspring as a difference of opinion, surrounded by water.

Most are on the same page when it comes to ferry fares, though. Some daily Vancouver Island-Saltspring commuters are at the point where they find it cheaper to keep a car on each side.

Merchants, accepting it’s tough to budge Americans kept at home by a strong Canadian dollar and weak U.S. economy, say that makes it all the more important to keep the domestic market moving.

“It’s the cost of the ferries,” Young says, “that’s holding us back.”