Greater Victoria Harbour Authority faces wild financial swing after record year

The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority’s annual report, released Wednesday, shows it posted a surplus of $3.6 million for the fiscal year that ended March 31, thanks to record revenues of $16.3 million.

But the good news ended there.

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Faced with an entire year without cruise ships, the GVHA is now forecasting a deficit of $2.8 million for the current fiscal year, ending March 31, 2021.

“Talk about two opposite ends of the spectrum,” said chief executive Ian Robertson. “This should have been a good news story. We had a record year last year in terms of revenue and a record in terms of our surplus, which was invested back into our properties, and look how it has changed.”

With the cancellation of the cruise-ship season, Victoria missed out on about 300 ship arrivals between April and October that would have brought 800,000 passengers to the city.

According to the harbour authority, the cruise-ship season provides about 1,000 local jobs and injects about $130 million into Victoria’s economy, supporting many small businesses, artisans, entertainers and tour guides.

And it’s the lifeline of the harbour authority itself, as cruise-ship fees represent 70 per cent of its operational funding.

Robertson said as a result of the pandemic, the authority, which owns and operates a variety of waterfront properties, including Ogden Point, the Inner Harbour Causeway, Fisherman’s Wharf and the CPR Steamship Terminal building, was forced to cut its operational costs early in the spring, put capital projects on hold and reduce its staff by about half.

Robertson said he is concerned about having to delay repair work on amenities used by the public, but has little choice.

“We have to focus our attention on essential repairs only,” he said. “We need to ensure public safety.”

Robertson said if a facility needs a large repair in the coming year, access to it might need to be shut down.

One project that has not been cancelled is the assessment of all GVHA properties.

Assessments of 11 of the 14 facilities are completed, and the harbour authority expects to complete the final three at Ogden Point over the next few months, Robertson said.

The assessments will allow the GVHA to set priorities for which facilities are most in need of repair, and estimate repair costs, so they can go to the three levels of government for funding help, he said.

The authority is also planning for some version of a cruise season next year.

“A number of decisions have to be taken that are beyond our control, but we are planning for the safe return of cruise,” Robertson said.

“It’s a question of what it looks like and when.”

Possible scenarios include no 2021 cruise season at all, or a season with fewer vessels, carrying 50 to 60 per cent passenger loads and increased safety protocols on board and on shore.

Robertson said the earliest they expect a cruise ship to sail into Victoria would be July next year, but there’s no guarantee of that.

He said they are closely watching a cruise line operating out of Europe that has been making stops around Italy to give them a sense of what a cruise season could look like here.

It might include limited on-shore excursions that are tightly controlled.

Robertson said they are considering the possibility of having Victoria merchants set up temporary stores at Ogden Point to serve the vessels’ passengers.

“We have a lot of space and we could seal some of the area off where passengers could get off,” he said.

“We might be able to bring Victoria to the ships.”

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