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Les Leyne: Fund has done a lot of good on Island; province is mum on its future

For 17 years, ICET has doled out numerous small grants all over the island to a wide variety of community projects
When B.C. Green MLA Adam Olsen asked the NDP about the Island Coastal Economic Trust this week, there was nothing definitive in the answer. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

The NDP government’s ­surplus spending spree hasn’t yet extended to a key area of good works on Vancouver Island, despite the urgings of dozens of local officials.

Two weeks ago, ­Premier David Eby gifted local ­municipalities with a $1-billion, no-strings-attached fund that they didn’t even ask for. But his government is ­apparently still deciding what to do about a much smaller request from the Island Coastal ­Economic Trust.

For 17 years, it has doled out small grants all over the island to a wide variety of community projects. It was ­created in 2006 by the B.C. Liberal government by way of a $50-million commitment. But it was always a pale imitation of similar regional economic ­initiative funds elsewhere in B.C. that got started with much more money.

Island officials have been warning for years that the trust was drawing down its capital. Last year, its annual report said “without new investment this year, the board must initiate dissolution of the trust in 2023-24.

“The imminent risk that our islands and coastal communities lose their sole economic trust calls on us to work swiftly to create a solution.”

But when B.C. Green MLA Adam Olsen asked the NDP about it this week, there was nothing definitive in the answer.

Jobs and Economic Development Minister Brenda Bailey agreed with Olsen that it was playing an important role. She even hinted at personal support. (“I myself am an Island girl.”)

“Building resilient communities is a key action of our StrongerBC economic plan, which helps move B.C. forward by tackling the challenges of today while growing an economy that works for everyone.”

So it ticks off all the buzz phrases in NDP econospeak.

But Bailey wouldn’t answer the question of whether ICET will be re-funded. “We understand the timeline that the board is working with. We’re continuing to have discussions.”

Maybe everything will become clearer when the budget is unveiled Tuesday. But the question has been hanging for so long that Olsen wondered why there’s so much “brinksmanship” going on over what looks like a sensible, productive way to promote economic development on the Island.

As Olsen put it: “Will she be reinvesting in these communities, or will she be telling them that they’re on their own?”

ICET has always been short-changed. A comparable northern B.C. development fund has received $287 million. An Okanagan one got $692 million, according to ICET. So both are self-sustaining and run on interest revenue to do good works.

But the Island one was too small to produce enough interest, so the board started drawing down early on, by design. It’s a wonder it even lasted this long. It got topped up in 2017, when Liberals promised $10 million more and the NDP made good on it after taking power.

But that funding is nearly exhausted. ICET CEO Brodie Guy said: “The trust is currently making preparations to announce the final year for First Nations, local governments, rural communities and non-profits to submit applications should there be no further provincial investment.”

He is optimistic there will be some good news. But the province has left this hanging a lot longer than it should have.

ICET is asking for a significant investment in the range of $150 million to boost it to a level where it could be self-sustaining, even if it is still short of the other two regional funds.

Guy said the coastal economy is in transition. Fish farm closures and old-growth timber deferrals are happening at the same time there’s significant migration to Island and coastal communities.

The right investments can create enormous long-term value, that outweighs the costs. Over the years ICET chipped in funding for the Nanaimo airport expansion, invested with a Nuu-chah-nulth entity in a luxury fishing resort, contributed to a Sunshine Coast destination trail, put money into Ladysmith’s marina and dozens of other projects. Most of them leverage far more money from other sources to hike the value.

Ladysmith Mayor Aaron Stone, chair of the ICET board, said the fund is at a fork in the road. It can be renewed if funding is granted, dissolved, or something in between.

With years of public sector economic development experience, he said ICET has “the best business case, the easiest ‘yes’, I’ve ever developed.”

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