The Week: Doing it right on the wrong side of town, CVRD gets a good result for wrong reasons

The Week: Doing it right on the wrong side of town, CVRD gets a good result for wrong reasons

The Week: Doing it right on the wrong side of town, CVRD gets a good result for wrong reasons


As voters and taxpayers, we hope our elected officials always do the right thing for the right reasons.

The Comox Valley Regional District did the right thing last week by terminating its contract with the Comox Valley Economic Development Society (CVEDS). But they did it for the wrong reasons.

The Economic Development Society was a poorly run service that clothed itself in secrecy, reported to no one but a few self-appointed friends and spent a lot of money for questionable community benefit. And in doing so, the society managed to disappoint, frustrate and antagonize broad sectors of the Comox Valley community.

That was the right reason to terminate this contract.

Hornby and Denman islands and the Village of Cumberland pulled their financial support for the CVEDS service many years ago because those taxpaying elected officials realized how little value they were getting for their money.

Regional directors from Courtenay and Areas A and B might have gotten there, too, but they were making a good faith effort to transform CVEDS into a modern and more relevant organization through — for the first time ever — serious oversight.

But the CVEDS contract was not terminated for its obvious lack of performance. It wasn’t terminated because it had lost its way many years ago by spending almost a third of its budget on a seafood festival that added nothing to the economic sustainability of local businesses beyond a slight uptick in restaurant reservations.

The society’s contract wasn’t terminated because it often claimed responsibility for things on which it actually had minimal impact. It wasn’t terminated because the society shunned accountability or that it failed to comply with requirements under the Societies Act. Or that it had trouble managing its money.

No, the regional district terminated the CVEDS contract because Comox council members objected to increased oversight and scrutiny. Comox councillors didn’t like the regional board setting goals for the society that targeted current problems, such as affordable housing for low-wage employees and familys’ access to child care.

Comox Councillor Ken Grant summed it up when he lectured Courtenay Councillor Wendy Morin about how elected officials should manage arms-length societies.

“That’s the thing about the independent governance model, you don’t get to tell them how to do their business. That’s been the problem from day one,” Grant said at the Feb. 9 regional board meeting.

Grant couldn’t have been more wrong.

When a local government creates an organization — as the regional district did by forming CVEDS in 1988 — that exists only because it receives more than $1 million in public funds annually, then the elected officials absolutely get to say what they want for their money. In fact, taxpayers expect their elected officials to set the big picture goals and to hold people accountable for achieving them.

Grant was right about one thing. The independent governance model has been the problem from day one. Day one being back in 1988. Since then the society has happily taken the public’s $1 million-plus every year and did whatever it wanted with the money. Past elected officials didn’t seem to care what they did.

What is truly amazing is that this bad example of political oversight took so long to blow up.


But don’t celebrate just yet

Just because the contract for economic development services gets voided later this year doesn’t mean Comox Valley taxpayers are off the hook.

The regional district wrote CVEDS a $400,000 check in January. That’s one-half of its 2021 funding. The expectation is that the society will continue to fulfil the majority of their 2021 work plan items, including the ones the Town of Comox finds so distasteful.

But, of course, the regional district has no means of ensuring that all or even most of the work will get done satisfactorily. What recourse does the CVRD have? The contract will terminate on Aug. 26 whether the work gets done or not.

The second half of the $800,000 CVEDS 2021 budget is scheduled for July. Will they automatically get another $400,000 for their last two months? Not necessarily, according to CVRD Chief Administration Officer Russell Dyson.

“CVEDS has various commitments in place to deliver services for economic development, tourism and visitors services, and destination marketing. The termination notice provides service to CVEDS for eight of the 12 months in 2021, therefore the second payment for 2021 will consider any adjustments to annual allocation for this adjustment, noting that some costs are annual whether the contract is terminated part way through the year,” he told Decafnation via email.

Dyson confirmed that the regional district would not be responsible for any severance pay for CVEDS employees because they are not CVRD employees.

But Comox Valley taxpayers might become responsible for the Visitors Centre, which some people call the “drum” building and others call the White Elephant.

According to Dyson, “Upon the wind up of CVEDS, the net assets after payment of liabilities is transferred to CVRD and the participant member municipalities. The ongoing ownership and operation of the Visitors Centre will be a key consideration of the service participants in determining future service priorities.”

Dyson says the CVRD and municipal partners will be meeting and working with CVEDS staff the next few months to “encourage” that the work plan priorities are delivered and to encourage a smooth transition to a future service delivery determined through the service review.

“The second payment amount will be determined through this collaborative work over the next few months,” he said.


So what will rise from the ashes of CVEDS?

How will local governments provide destination marketing, handle visitor services, manage the hotel tax money and encourage economic vibrancy?

Given that Cumberland and the islands are doing just fine managing their own economic prosperity in-house — as most other communities on Vancouver Island already do — the ideal scenario now is that Courtenay and Comox will hire their own economic development officers.

The CVRD should also hire an economic officer to focus on the three electoral areas because it’s too easy for the rural areas’ needs to be overshadowed by the municipalities. They may all feel strongly about food security, but there are different projects that need to take place in different areas.

Then all four of the Valley’s economic development officers can meet monthly to share information and work together where it’s possible.

Meanwhile, all local governments should agree to share the contract for destination marketing and visitor services to Tourism Vancouver Island (about $260,000 per year). The City of Courtenay economic development officer should have input to Tourism Vancouver Island about how local MRDT funds are spent because all of that money comes from the city.


Every community’s needs will evolve over time

But no matter how our elected officials propose to meet those needs, they must always favour transparency and accountability and ensure their objectives are being met without favouritism and for the benefit of the greatest number of people.



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Regional District terminates CVEDS contract, opposing views were too entrenched

Regional District terminates CVEDS contract, opposing views were too entrenched

Decafnation archive photo

Regional District terminates CVEDS contract, opposing views were too entrenched


This story was updated March 2 to include a reaction from Area C Director Edwin Grieve. Comox Councillor Ken Grant and Comox Mayor Russ Arnott did not respond.

After almost a year of public discussions, in-camera meetings and mediated workshops that were often divisive, the Comox Valley Regional District will terminate its contract with the Comox Valley Economic Development Society on Aug. 26.

In an email to CVEDS Chair Deana Simkin sent Feb. 25, board Chair Jesse Ketler said the regional district was invoking Section 22 of the current service agreement signed just seven months ago on July 27. The section provides for early termination of the contract with six months notice.

A press release issued by the regional district this morning made the termination public knowledge.

The 33-year-old Economic Development Society will now almost certainly fold without a contract that provided local public funding in excess of $1.2 million annually in recent years in exchange for economic development and destination marketing services, and management of the Visitor’s Centre.

In this morning press release, Chief Administrative officer Russell Dyson said, “the CVRD with their municipal partners (City of Courtenay and Town of Comox) will continue reviewing the economic development service to provide a path forward on how economic development will be delivered within the region.”

One possible path that Comox Council has already discussed is for the town to hire its own economic development officer, as Cumberland did in 2016. Comox could still continue to participate in regional funding for destination marketing and Visitors Centre management.

Regional directors made the decision to terminate the contract at an in-camera session following the Feb. 9 full board meeting, which had become heated over the Economic Development Society’s 2021 work plan and budget.

The Comox Town Council has been at odds with the majority of regional district directors over how to manage the CVEDS contract and over its fundamentally opposing view about what constitutes economic development.

The board majority comprising directors from Courtenay and Electoral Areas A and B have pressed to make CVEDS more financially accountable and to modernize its view of what drives the local economy.

Comox Director Ken Grant made the Town Council’s position crystal clear at the Feb. 9 meeting.

“With all the angst around this, I don’t see any way how this relationship with CVEDS can continue,” he said. “So it’s time to cut our ties with CVEDS and stop pouring good money after bad.”

He said the society’s 2021 workplan included seven projects specifically requested by the board “that, in my opinion” have nothing to do with economic development. That’s taking us down a road our community really isn’t interested in.”

Those seven items included, among others, efforts to help create broader access to child care to enable women to return or enter the workforce and addressing the need for affordable housing to accommodate employees of local businesses.

Grant said the regional board has been “interjecting our decisions into their board … in an independent governance model you don’t get to tell them how to do their business,” he said. “That’s been the problem from day one.”



Comox Town Council wasn’t happy with the board’s new vision for economic development. The board majority wasn’t happy with how CVEDS operated, especially its lack of transparency and what it considered an outdated approach.

It appears both sides had become tired of the conflict.

Some observers believe Comox developed its own economic development strategy last year when the differences of opinion looked irreconcilable and they didn’t have the votes to prevail.

Town Chief Administration Officer Jordan Wahl recently spoke about hiring its own economic development officer as Cumberland did after withdrawing from the regional service five years

The town hired Lara Greasley, former CVEDS marketing manager, last year and now there is speculation they might hire CVEDS executive director John Watson.

That would leave Courtenay and the electoral areas to form their own economic development plan.

But there might still be room for a regional-wide destination marketing service and management of the Visitor’s Centre, both of which are currently under contract with Tourism Vancouver Island.



Area A Director Daniel Arbour said the ongoing service review will allow the municipalities and rural areas to discuss how to support economic development in each respective community. He said it’s clear there are a variety of needs, some which may be best addressed in each jurisdiction, and some through regional collaboration.

“For Area A, CVEDS has worked primarily on the promotion of the shellfish sector for years. Without CVEDS, as chair of the Baynes Sound Ecosystem Forum, and AVICC local government representative on shellfish issues, I look forward to continue to grow the relationship with the businesses, BC Shellfish Association, and K’omoks First Nation on the promotion of sustainability initiatives in and around Baynes Sound,” he told Decafnation.

“Ultimately, in the years ahead, the most important economic consideration in Area A will be to properly manage growth in and around Union Bay, and to make thoughtful decisions around infrastructure requirements and integrated community planning,” he said.

Area B Director Arzeena Hamir said she has been advocating for more support for the farming sector ever since she was elected in 2018.

“Supporting farmers to increase their incomes per acre and create a vibrant food economy has always been at the forefront of my asks of our Economic Development Service. I hope to continue pushing for that,” she told Decafnation.

“I do also support more childcare places and I do see the direct connection between the vitality of the workforce and the ability of that workforce to return to work without having to worry about who is taking care of their kids,” she said.

Hamir added that she is looking forward to a transformed Economic Development Service.

“It’s been a long haul. We did try to work with CVEDS under the new contract but I felt we weren’t getting the deliverables we agreed to and CVEDS continued to make decisions (like the contract to Tourism Vancouver Island) without even informing the CVRD in advance,” she said.

Area C Director Edwin Grieve thanked the “incredible list” of volunteers who stepped up and donated so much of their time and expertise to serve on the CVEDS board. He noted past presidents Richard Hardy, Ian Whitehead, Justin Rigsby, Deana Simpkin. He also gave recognition to John Watson and Geoff, Lara, Arron and others from the staff that worked magic and doubled every public dollar.

“In this, as in so many Comox Valley endeavours, it was the volunteers, societies and not-for-profits that made this such a great place to live,” he told Decafnation. 



It was the Comox Council that unanimously voted to request a formal review of the economic development service. That review with a hired consultant began on Jan. 17 but has so far resulted in only one in-camera meeting, which primarily focused on the process and procedures for the review.

The next meeting of the review committee is scheduled for mid-March but does not appear on the regional district’s website because they have closed the meetings to the public.

The review committee comprises representatives from Courtenay, Comox, the three electoral areas and the regional board chair.





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The Week: Comox has a hissy over CV Economic Development Society changes

The Week: Comox has a hissy over CV Economic Development Society changes

It’s stormy weather this week down at the Comox Public Marina  |  George Le Masurier photo

The Week: Comox has a hissy over CV Economic Development Society changes


Well, folks, another week has passed so that must mean another new controversy has erupted over the Comox Valley Economic Development Society. And this one has pulled back the cloak — just a tiny bit — on the behind the scenes politicking at the regional district and the lockstep march of the Comox Town Council.

In the midst of what appeared to be a collaborative attempt to reach a shared vision for the future of regional economic development, Comox Town Councillors have unanimously decided to derail that process by triggering a section of the Local Government Act. That section is often used as the first step in withdrawing from a service.

It’s no secret that the CV Economic Development Society, known as CVEDS, has become a focal point that epitomizes the Comox Valley’s geopolitical polarization. And it’s a red hot point right now.

The region’s remaining old guard, epitomized by Comox Council and Electoral Area C Director Edwin Grieve, love the CVEDS status quo. The new blood of elected officials in Cumberland, Courtenay and Areas A and B do not.

So now, with changes afoot, no one is complaining more about proposed reforms to the regional district’s relationship with CVEDS than Comox councillors. There’s a reason for that.

The old guard loves CVEDS because it has historically done their bidding. A case in point: no Comox Valley jurisdiction has benefited more from CVEDS activity than the Town of Comox.

This imbalance has rankled everyone else. And it’s one reason why Cumberland and Hornby and Denman islands have withdrawn from regional economic development services.

But that’s not the only factor driving the new blood’s desire to transform CVEDS. These elected officials want economic support services that accommodate the community’s shift toward social and environmental values.

The new blood sees the old CVEDS as promoters of environmental projects like the Raven Coal Mine and bullish land developers such as 3L Developments. They see CVEDS undermining a proposal by an active Exhibition Grounds user in order to promote a convention centre on ALR land. They see a lack of accountability, a lack of interest in the social issues that affect economic vitality and a lack of attention to non-profit organizations that contribute to economic readiness.

They also see the regional district’s reprehensibly long history of a lack of meaningful oversight of an organization funded with public money.

It’s not surprising that the Town of Comox would object to any reforms of the regional economic development service that might divert staff attention and funding to other beneficiaries. Like the agriculture community. Or the arts and cultural community. Or some other physical location of the valley.

But the extent of Comox Council’s territorial protectionism is confusing and conflicted.

This was evident at a recent CVRD workshop solely focused on economic services. Comox Councillor Ken Grant objected to any funding or initiative to promote mountain biking or improve the sport’s infrastructure because it might benefit Cumberland, where the most trails and amenities exist, but who no longer participates in the service.

Other directors were quick to point out that being known Islandwide as a mountain biking mecca brings economic benefit to all kinds of businesses across the entire Comox Valley.

In fact, it was a Comox business — the former Simon’s Cycles, now known as the Comox Bike Company — that practically invented mountain biking in the Comox Valley. There are still two bike stores in Comox and residents/taxpayers/voters often go to the Cumberland Community Forest to ride.

And yet, Comox wants support for its own marina and Comox Valley Airport projects.

Here’s the problem. Everything was working fine for Comox until the new blood turned its attention to the CV Economic Development Society. Now, no longer in the majority, the town sees its influence and benefits drifting toward other areas of the community. And they don’t like it.

So, they’ve started a statutory service review of the regional district’s economic development service under the Local Government Act. But the regional district had already scheduled a complete review and reimagining of the service for next year.

It doesn’t seem to make sense. Except, the formalized service review includes a provision for Comox to withdraw from the service if it doesn’t like the outcome, which it probably won’t. This is the same process requested by Cumberland when it decided to withdraw.

Comox Mayor Russ Arnott implied in a statement to Decafnation this week that the town doesn’t intend to withdraw. But what other benefit exists for going the formal route over the already planned informal route?

Well, the public can’t discern the town’s motive or long-term goals of this action because Mayor Arnott has locked up his pack of councillors from speaking about it without his permission.

When Decafnation asked councillors for more explanation and for their personal opinion on what they hoped this action would achieve, they refused to talk.

Councillor Alex Bissinger said the council decided that only the mayor could speak on the topic to avoid “mixed messages.” In other words, any slight deviation from the company line might cause trouble.

Heaven forbid that a Comox council member might have an opinion that differs from the rest of the council or whose feelings about an issue might present a perspective that hasn’t been pre-vetted. Imagine the chaos that would ensue!

By comparison, Courtenay council members regularly disagree with each other and express their views openly for public consumption. By Comox council standards, it’s a wonder the city gets anything accomplished. But they do and their constituents usually know what they’re doing and why.

So the CV Economic Development Society drama will now play out in a formalized setting without all the voices at the table. Only one representative from Comox and Courtenay will be able to participate.

Even the recently formed Economic Development Select Committee will meet this week to fold up its tents. It had been charged to investigate efficiencies and cost savings from integrating CVEDS activities and office space with the regional district.

But that committee’s effort was probably going nowhere anyway. CV Economic Development Society Executive Director John Watson has arranged for new office space in … wait for it …

Comox Town Hall.









Go HERE to read all of our stories on the Comox Valley Economic Development Society




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