By David F. Rooney
Last year’s highway strip mall debacle underscored a dilemma facing Revelstoke when it considers economic development: how can we determine which projects will be welcomed by our community?
The Hall Pacific project was promoted as a $20 million highway mall that would add new shopping opportunities to the city, pull shoppers off the Trans-Canada Highway, create 200 jobs, help stop out-of-town shopping and provide the municipal government with about $350,000 in annual tax revenue. At first glance it looked like a development that would be welcomed with open arms, but it never squeaked its way past the zoning process.
Established downtown business organized a very strong resistance movement, buttressed by townspeople who believed that one of the mall’s two proposed anchor tenants, an unnamed national drugstore chain, would hurt an existing pharmacy. The other anchor was to be a discount supermarket.
While existing businesses openly fought the proposal some observers believed there was actually a fair amount of unorganized support for it among local people who believed the promise of jobs and wanted a cheaper source of food. But that perception of support was almost purely anecdotal and impossible to measure. While some consumers did openly favour the project a mere handful of perhaps nine or ten people went to the final public hearing after which Council voted against the zoning changes that Hall Pacific had sought.
The experience was deeply divisive. It damaged long-standing personal relationships and in the eyes of some hurt Revelstoke’s reputation as a place that welcomes business. It was also a blow to Mayor Mark McKee and those members of City Council who had waged pro-business campaigns. And it left some members of the community wondering what’s happening in terms of development.
Whether you supported the highway mall or not Revelstoke still needs new investment to create new business, new jobs and new tax revenue. The city also needs new residents. The 2011 Canada Census showed our population at 7,139, down from 7,230 in 2006. That was not an anomaly. Revelstoke’s population has been declining for years. The 2001 Census measured our population as being 7,500 and that was down from 8,047 in 1996.
This suggests Revelstoke faces two closely related problems. A declining permanent population and low new investment in the local economy.
The 2016 Census will eventually show us what our population looks like. I say eventually because it usually takes about a year before the first demographic statistics are publicly available. Certainly, however, many people have faith in our ability to attract new residents. David Evans proposal for a massive development in Arrow Heights is a pretty tangible example of faith in our future. (Please click here to read the latest report to Council on that project.)
RMR has faith in Revelstoke’s future
This is not to say there is no investment. This year RMR says it will build North America’s first Brandauer Mountain Coaster. This monorail will start at Revelation Lodge and travel 1.4 kilometres dropping 279 vertical metres while speeding through ski runs, glades, and a tunnel before ending in the resort village next to the Revelation Gondola base. Planning also continues for an adventure park at Greeley and new small businesses such as restaurants continue to pop up. But other non-tourism investments such as the defunct highway mall project appear to be few and far between.
Is this a matter of concern? It depends in part on how you look at it.
“We have something that other communities would kill for,” RMR General Manager Rob Elliott. “We have all the bases covered when it comes to winter sports — downhill, cross-country and snowmobiling — and we have a stable economy.”
RMR employs 180 – 200 people year-round and is responsible for millions of dollars injected into the local economy each year. So far it is proving to be the golden goose many people had hoped it would be a decade ago.
He also pointed to the growth in bus-tour traffic to Revelstoke over the past year and the fact that we have a relatively broad and dependable economic base thanks to Downie and Canadian Pacific, Parks Canada and our small- and medium-sized businesses.
“For a small town our economy is well diversified,” says Alan Mason, the City’s director of Community Economic Development. “I think we as a community have done well. Forestry remains strong here thanks to Downie and the Gormans. Despite the downturn they’ve continued to invest.”
Mason pointed at to the transportation and government services sectors as other valuable supports for the local economy.
“If tourism were to tank we’d have these other sectors to sustain us,” he said in a recent interview.
Is high technology our next goose to lay golden eggs?
And we have a lot to sustain. Mason said our local economy is between $280 million and $300 million and the number of business licenses in the city stand at about 1,000. Some of that growth, however, is due to an increase in the number of licenses granted to residents who have secondary suites or vacation rentals.
But there is room for growth, Mason said.
Some of that growth may be fueled by the fact that Revelstoke is now wired with high-speed fibre optic cables. But don’t look for a major high-tech company to set up shop here anytime soon.
“We’re more likely to get people coming here and setting up consultancies or individual businesses than a data farm with 200 people,” he said, referring to a potential project that was floated by one out-of-town entrepreneur at a public meeting in August 2008.
Small businesses with their feet in the high-tech sector are a growing here in BC and Revelstoke wants to capture some of that. That’s why Council established a High Tech Task Force, which has just reported to Mayor Mark McKee and Council. The report recommended that the City establish a permanent Advisory Committee to oversee implementation of the Tech Strategy, and that the City apply to the new Rural Dividend Program for funds to help implement the strategy.
It also recommends, along other things, hiring a marketing specialist to develop a plan to sell our community as an ideal location for a high-technology business. Selling our city is one of the keys to the strategy’s success. We have the fiber optic, we have support services and we can offer the lifestyle desired by many of the younger men and women involved in this sector.
Will regular air service put us on the economic map?
One thing we do lack — and that has often been identified as a barrier to economic growth — is a full-service airport. However, Council is taking steps to deal with that. At Tuesday’s meeting, Council voted to ask the Columbia Shuswap Regional District board of directors to allocate $37,000 from the Economic Opportunity Fund for the rental of airplanes to provide a charter flight service from Vancouver to Revelstoke on eight weekends during the months of February and March, 2017.
“The total cost of the project, including plane rentals, marketing, ground transportation and contingency in the event planes are unable to land in Revelstoke, is estimated at $111,800,” Mason said in a report to Council. “Staff are requesting that Council support a request for $37,500 from the EOF for this project to ensure that all costs of the service can be covered.
“We are anticipating that similar amounts will be contributed by RAA and RMR. It is also anticipated that fare revenue will be generated and will be used to offset the costs of these initial contributions. No contractual agreements will be finalized until funding from each party is confirmed.”
If successful, this arrangement might eventually lead to regular charter air service to our city.
There is a lot happening in terms of development that could result in a brighter economic future and as everyone knows development matters. It matters because it can lead to greater general prosperity for all Revelstokians and it can help attract more permanent residents to our community.