City by the Sea Rides Wave of Growth

Campbell River

With all the developments going on in Campbell River these days, we could easily write a book, let alone an article. And the massive construction boom that has been taking place over the last few years appears to be just gearing up…

BC Hydro’s $1 billion John Hart Generating Station replacement project is powering northern Vancouver Island’s economic engine – one that’s propelling the construction industry forward with two new hospitals, a retirement development, new hotels and a major investment that will produce a new liquid natural gas project. Business in Focus spoke with Vic Goodman, the CEO of the Campbell River Economic Development Corporation, and Ron Neufeld, the Deputy City Manager and General Manager of Operations, about the transformation of this scenic seaside community.

Stretching along 16 kilometres of waterfront and surrounded by pristine mountains and forests on the west coast of British Columbia, Campbell River looks out across Discovery Passage and the islands dotting Georgia Strait toward Desolation Sound – one of the world’s premier cruising areas. The population stands at around 35,000, with the catchment area closer to 100,000. The community is home to a vibrant First Nations culture, including some of the best carvers in the world, and a thriving arts community.

The third largest city on Vancouver Island, Campbell River is riding a wave of growth and expansion. One of the reasons for the recent boom is city council’s revitalization plans for the downtown core. As incentive, the city has offered a downtown revitalization tax exemption for new developments and redevelopments, providing tax relief on the increased assessed value for up to five years. “What we find, in some instances, is that it helps to take away some of the financial risk for the developer during the initial few years until they are able to sell some units or get commercial tenants in place and get their cash flow going,” says Ron Neufeld, Deputy City Manager and General Manager of Operations for the City of Campbell River. After five years, full taxes are applied again, so the city, in the long term, has increased revenue through a growing tax base.

In conjunction with the five-year tax breaks, infrastructure upgrades and beautification of the downtown core are also occurring. Just outside Ron’s window at City Hall, a developer is turning what was a derelict city block into the community’s largest commercial space, in a multiple-storey, glass-fronted building. Given the project scale, and its central downtown location, the city timed improvements to public space with this substantial private investment in the heart of the community.

Why is so much happening at once? Ron explains: “A few different factors are at play. Campbell River has historically been a resource-based community, with diversity in forestry, fishing and mining. Add great transportation access by air, water or land and excellent infrastructure all nestled in a spectacular setting with a mild climate and you have all the ingredients for strong economic growth. Right now, multiple opportunities are just starting to be realized, and we are well-positioned to take advantage of these and more.”

A January 13 news release from Ross Blackwell, the city’s land use services manager, states that there was more than $100 million in new construction in Campbell River in 2013. While the overall number of building permits saw only a minor increase over 2012, the value of construction was up by seventy-two percent (nearly double the value of construction in 2012) and the city anticipates another strong year in 2014. Highlights of the 2013 construction season include the Berwick Retirement Community (a high-end, six-storey complex) and a new downtown hotel. The number of building permits for single family homes increased by 19 percent from 2012 while commercial construction value grew by 45 percent and multifamily residential value increased by 43 percent.

There are also two major projects for Campbell River in 2014: the construction of a new $250 million hospital and the $1 billion reconstruction of the John Hart Generating Station on the outskirts of the city. This construction will give the local economy a significant boost with material purchases and wages for both local and out-of-town workers living locally during construction.

The five-year generating station project will rebuild the powerhouse and the tunnel for water that supplies the hydro power. “The original power station was built in 1947 and drew its water through wood pipes called penstocks. They are being replaced by a 2.1 kilometre tunnel that is being bored through the bedrock from the reservoir lake through to the powerhouse,” Ron says.

More than five hundred people will be working during peak operations over the course of the project and more than eight hundred people employed in all. The general contractor has been selected and the contract with BC Hydro is expected to be finalized this month.

On the docket as well is a liquefied natural gas project (LNG), which is currently pending approval. Quicksilver Resources out of Calgary purchased the former pulp and paper mill site and is proposing to construct a LNG facility there.

Currently, BC has a large number of proposals to build LNG projects across the province. Not all will be built, and due diligence details remain to be done before major construction decisions can be finalized. Final investment decisions for the first projects are anticipated to be announced toward the end of 2014.

LNG construction projects are massive, with more than 4,000 people employed over a four to five-year period. “If the LNG project goes ahead, it will generate quite a number of construction jobs in its wake. We are very much looking into the future with that one, and our office is doing everything it can to assist Quicksilver to make the investment decision that we hope they will make,” says Vic Goodman, CEO of Rivercorp, Campbell River’s Economic Development Corporation.

A major component of Premier Clark’s economic platform has been the development of the LNG industry on the west coast. Spurred on by the Asian market that needs a greater supply of natural gas, the proposed LNG industry would ship the gas to places like Japan for use in heating buildings and cooking. The recent earthquakes forced a major shift in Japanese energy policies by moving away from nuclear energy to a cleaner, safer fuel source like natural gas. From an environmental standpoint, LNG is also a better alternative to some of the proposed heavy oil pipelines.

LNG projects in BC will range from $4 billion and up, with thirty to forty-year timelines. “This is a major export market for Canadian resources based in BC. If the market comes together the way it could, then BC and Campbell River will flourish,” Vic says.

The Campbell River LNG project would bring a large number of people into the community for the new jobs, and the community is also looking to its traditional industries for economic growth. Another major employer in “the Salmon Capital of the World” is the aquaculture industry, which employs more than 6,000 people in the north island region.

Campbell River is also a hub for the mining industry and is the service and support centre for this industry sector on northern Vancouver Island. There are two mines close by: an underground coal mine and a base metals mine that is still producing after more than forty years. The recent major geoscience study of northern Vancouver Island was the first in more than thirty years, and the data became a catalyst for staking more than 22,000 hectares of land on the island.

“There are indications that there are mineable quantities of rare earth and the potential for marble quarries. The next steps include various stages of production from exploration through to the point where you’ve got a producing mine, and Campbell River continues to be at the centre of it all for the north island,” Vic adds.

The anticipated growth for Campbell River’s population is a steady 2 to 2.5 percent per year though, of course, the arrival of any of the proposed larger projects such as an LNG plant will cause a temporary spike.

A number of factors drive economies in coastal communities, and the resource and forestry industries are currently also experiencing an upswing. “Right now, things are turning around in the economy for these types of sectors and we anticipate strong growth. Campbell River, because of its geographic location, the beauty of the area and the west coast climate, will continue to attract a fairly significant number of retirees who buy homes and turn Campbell River into their year-round residence,” Vic says.

Campbell River offers some of the best quality of life in the world, with a variety of housing options, availability of doctors and access to medical care, lots of shopping options, year-round natural amenities (thanks to that mild climate) and some of the best golf courses on Vancouver Island. All the things that seniors look for are readily available in Campbell River, and the cost of real estate is still significantly less expensive then the lower mainland or even the lower island. Plus, so many homes in Campbell River offer exceptional ocean and mountain views.

“So we are still a very affordable community and very liveable. There is absolutely no question that we anticipate retirees to contribute to the growth of the community for the foreseeable future and the Berwick by the Sea development that is currently under construction in our downtown is evidence of that,” Ron adds.

Then there’s tourism. People from around the world make once-in-a-lifetime trips to Campbell River and the surrounding area to see the unspoiled wilderness and abundant wildlife. Specialized tours are available to see whales, grizzly bears and eagles – and people can even sign up to snorkel with salmon.

And it’s easy to get to Campbell River. The airport (YBL) has two daily carriers, and it’s only four hours to fly from Toronto to Campbell River. Or, take a ferry from the mainland to Victoria or Nanaimo, and drive via a four-lane highway.

“All the pieces are here, opportunity is here and I think we are going to see community development and growth the likes of which we have not seen before,” Ron sums up.

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June 4, 2020, 10:14 PM EDT