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Viewpoint: Vancouver and the Coast – two worlds apart

Viewpoint: Vancouver and the Coast – two worlds apart

Just a forty minute scenic ferry ride from Metro Vancouver, one of the hottest real estate economies, is the Sunshine Coast.  A coastal paradise that is not on the radar of most people and businesses in BC.  Why it is still virtually undiscovered boggles the minds of those who have found it.

Is it poor marketing?

Vancouverites generally think of the Okanagan or Vancouver Island when they wish to expand their businesses or wish to retire.  While a large number of residents may want it to remain a secret, businesses and many locals are hoping the Sunshine Coast will blossom and find itself in the BC economy.

Maybe it is because growth has been ignored or even discouraged, depending on the attitudes and politics that play out at town and district halls.  Community residents have largely been divided up the middle on favouring change or favouring the status quo, which means not wishing to change the quiet, rural and beach lifestyle they enjoy.  Mention a “fixed link,” bringing more people to the Sunshine Coast, and you will provoke a heated debate.

Just as Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast are worlds apart in their thinking, so it seems are the councils and residents in the town of Gibsons and Sechelt, the largest communities on the Coast.

In Gibsons, the council has approved or is about to approve four large developments. Mayor Wayne Rowe thinks they are game changers for his community.  In Sechelt, there are six big projects that are sitting at various stages of approval. Five have been on the books for some time now.  Just recently, a proposal by RTC Developments came forward to build a six-storey, 48-unit townhome project on the water. It is near the downtown core and could conform with Sechelt’s density town plan.  By his own admission, Sechelt Mayor Bruce Milne stated recently that council moves slowly in Sechelt and this is frustrating a group of mostly local developers who want to move their community forward.

Sechelt has the second oldest per capita population in BC, yet two seniors projects, Ocean Stories and Westbrook by the Sea, with 225 units combined, worth close to $75 million, employing at least 50 people, have been waiting patiently to be approved.  About his frustrations related to the approval of his Ocean Stories Seniors Project, Doug Spani a long time local developer says the bureaucracy is getting so big, it is getting so hard to do anything.  There are burgeoning opportunities but the transportation industry, ferries, road networks and governments aren’t keeping up.”

Two boutique hotels, Porpoise Bay Resort and Blue Ocean Golf Course Hotel, over $150 million in development, are also waiting. Ian Macdonald, of Vaka Marketing is the marketer for both projects.  Ian says, “From an economic demand perspective, we are in the best position we have ever been – there are opportunities in front of us banging on the door – the Sunshine Coast has never marketed itself in any strategic way in Vancouver.  If it did, it would change things dramatically.”

Also on the books, is an ambitious plan to build Sechelt Sustainable Community.  SSC is 170 hectares of sustainable development proposed for east Porpoise Bay.  It would take up to 20 years to complete.  It is a development that includes affordable housing, an age in-place seniors’ community, agricultural food production and a live-in next generation secondary school, accommodating 600. At build-out, the proposal calls for homes for 1,360 dwelling units and bring at least 500 new jobs.

The SSC team are eager to get started and want to build affordable housing first because it is badly needed on the coast.

They are aspiring to be North America’s most sustainable community and will have their own water source, and be less dependent on city services.

Mayor Milne of Sechelt rebuffs the claims that he and his council are anti-development, suggesting the development proposals that are before them are “great opportunities that we haven’t seen in over 20 years.”  He stated, “there is no reason to believe these projects can’t go ahead in some fashion sooner than the end of our mandate.” Milne predicts a historical high growth rate of 2.5 percent over the next five years. It will be stable growth with mid-life families including trades people finding a reason to stay. In 10 years he thinks Sechelt will be a community similar to now, but with higher density downtown and in the suburban areas.  He would like to see over 300 homes built next to the high school and further north, and some parts of the SSC project built.

If real estate sales and prices are an indication, a change is in the wind. The market is hotter than it has been in years.  Detached home sales on the Sunshine Coast in August rose 16 percent over last year and prices have jumped 26 percent.

In Gibsons, several development opportunities are well underway whereas proposed development in Sechelt is hanging in the long approval process.  It’s worth noting however, that in Gibsons, it took 11 years in the approval process before the controversial George boutique hotel, conference and wellness center on the waterfront broke ground.  It will bring 150 jobs paying on average $30 thousand to $40 thousand, 116 rooms, 39 condos, and pump over $100 million dollars in construction and development costs into Gibsons economy.  The George owner, Klaus Fuerniss, admits that  there were many times that he almost gave up.  “Fortunately the majority of the people voted for it.  A small group don’t want change, and I respect their opinion.” Site preparation for The George is underway. Four of the five older homes removed from the waterfront have been recycled to be used elsewhere in the community.  Fuerniss, who is well respected in the convention and hospitality industry, honed his expertise as an executive in Expo 86.  There will be a teaching facility at the resort in conjunction with Vancouver Community College, offering courses in health and wellness, and various disciplines in the hospitality industry.  The George will cater to conferences with some convention participants ferrying over from Vancouver.  It will have two restaurants, and 21 treatment rooms for better health.  Feurniss says that the 11 year approval process has been “exhausting, frustrating  and very expensive.” However he is glad that the current Gibsons council is moving ahead, offering the community choices and seeing to attract a younger demographic.

Also well underway, but delayed somewhat due to a lack of “trades” is the Gibsons Public Market set to open this fall.  It is a mini-Granville Market, with a distinctly different feel. Twenty five construction workers are building a two–storey aquarium which will be a focal feature of the market.  The  Marine Education Center will be a teaching and tourism catalyst  drawing people of all ages to the market and to Gibsons. The project is a unique non-profit social enterprise involving volunteers, corporate and private donors and the town. Gibsons Mayor, Wayne Rowe, says “ Our council views this project as an important stimulus for our town.” Rowe may be best described as a cautious, progressive mayor. “The knock is, it takes forever to get rezoning.  It is a valid criticism, but I think we are taking steps to expedite the process. We encourage development it has to fit – we are still undiscovered, and some people want it that way.  Controlled change is the key phrase.  We don’t want to be a Langley, or a suburb of Vancouver.  I am quite excited by the opportunities – I am of the firm view we have reached a tipping point where there is really going to be a surge of interest on the Sunshine Coast.”

Dave Longman is an entrepreneurial local developer who wants to be part of that opportunity. The longtime Gibsons resident is steps away from final approval for his coast distillery and brewery restaurant.  He says his multi-million dollar entertainment facility with over a dozen new jobs is what we need if we are going to attract a younger workforce. With three percent of millennials leaving Vancouver escaping the housing and rent crunch, Longman believes that the Sunshine Coast is a perfect landing spot.  Today’s demographics show just over half of Gibsons population is 24-64 years old and they want places to go.

Longman believes the tough slogging, the sometimes disingenuous costly approach to development is turning around. “The potential for new development has never been better—there is a feeling that something is different—I am excited.  The school population is rising and the coast has one of the most educated populations in Canada.

William Baker, Gibsons Chamber of Commerce President, says the Sunshine Coast needs millenials, new families and tech-oriented companies.  “We do not want to be just a retirement community – we are trying to attract those people and smaller companies who move for lifestyle.”

It seems most businesses and community leaders agree, the opportunities in front of them have never been better. They are there for the taking if the town councils in Sechelt and Gibsons are sincere in their commitments to move forward.

The obstacles in the way are the old enemies;  A fixed link, which most agree won’t be here anytime soon, and more reliable increased ferry access.  Nevertheless, the Sunshine Coast and the lifestyle it provides would seem to have a bright future ahead.

Brian Coxford

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