Sunday, February 10, 2013

Economic Development on Bowen Island

We currently have an economic development advisory committee hard at work trying to figure out how to bring a vision for Bowen's economy to life.  The vision they are working with is this:

An economically vibrant Bowen Island provides for the range of incomes and ages necessary to support social diversity in the community; and incorporates sectors of the economy that have a light environmental footprint, and by virtue of the diversity of these sectors is for the most part, recession proof. While commuters continue to be an important part of the economy, increasingly Islanders will have opportunities to live and work on Bowen, be appropriately compensated for their work, and be able to find accommodation suitable to their talents, needs, and incomes.

I too have been thinking about this vision lately and talking about it with several islanders.  What follows are some basic thoughts about this stuff.

The basic summary is this:  we are in a very privileged place on Bowen Island.  We have a wealthy population and an economy based on preserving and increasing private property value.  Our appetite for development that is not in line with supporting these values is minimal.  Therefore we need to shift our thinking to a community development model.

I kind of regret these thoughts actually because if I was King of Bowen Island, I would have things happening very differently.  But after ten years of thinking, talking and watching these issues play out I am convinced that Bowen Island is stuck in a track that is influenced by the attachment that homeowners here have to the value of their properties.

The kind of place we are

We are unique in the Lower Mainland.  We are an island and a terminus.  Nothing goes through us, and there is no itinerant economic activity.  Towns similar size to us located on highways have many more chances to grab a hold of the traffic that goes through their communities, but we don't have that chance.  Most of our land is either developed private land or Crown land in mostly undevelopable slope conditions.

As a result, most of the wealth on Bowen comes from land value and commuting salaries.  Land value and equity is locked up in houses or property and when it is liquidated, it is spent off island for the most part.  Commuting salaries support the bulk of families on Bowen and pay the tax bills that keep the municipality going.  Most of this money is also spent off island.  What little economy we have on Bowen is supported by commuting salaries with a little top up from summertime visitors.

Our commercial life has developed to meet the basic immediate needs of Bowen islanders.  From the time the Union Steamships Company closed, Bowen Islanders worked hard to attract basic services to allow for a life on the island.  A general store, post office, doctor, building supplier, drugstore, a coffee shop or two are all basic services that made full time island life possible.  As a result of this stable set of commercial services, the island was able to grow steadily and developers were able to build more and more houses.  Our population increased from the low hundreds in the 1970s to about 3500 in the 1990s and it has stayed pretty steady over the last ten years.

We cannot support much more growth in the "basic services sector."  We are pretty much tapped out here and there are few opportunities to develop more.  Only a fool would try to start another coffee shop, or a food store on Bowen at this point.  The capital cost is simply too high.

Optional commercial services (such as taxis) are very marginal and depend on topping up the market with visitors.  Over the years we have had a taxis service come and go.  the introduction of the bus service put Wes Magee out of business, and the water taxi market can probably sustain one and a half operators, and there is already one in the market.  We had a movie theatre for a while, but it couldn't make it.

The tourist economy and why pursuing it is a folly

It would seem like the holy grail of economic development would be our natural setting.  By all rights we should be a tourist destination.  We can easily compete with other islands for nature based recreational activities or for destination based tourism.  The problem is that we actually don't want a tourist based economy.

The truth of it is that Bowen Islanders tolerate limited tourism.  We don't mind people coming over for the day, but we have actively worked against efforts to create a tourist based economy.  The reason is simple: Islanders see tourism as a threat to their land values and an infringement on their privacy.  Over the past 20 years we have made it very easy for the property development to take root.  despite what developers say, our whole economy is now geared towards their needs.  We always privilege development of private property over commercial, industrial or tourism based business development.  

The recent National Park debate was the most recent example of this.  I was of the belief that establishing a National Park on Bowen island was a bold move that open up all kinds of on island business opportunities.  I had a view that we would become an island of walks, with trails linking small commercial centres, dotted with inns and B&Bs, campsites and other amenities.  We could have had a set of trails that would invite visitors to walk around and through our natural parklands, hiking several kilometres a day and resting in a series of staying places, perhaps each with a small pub and a place to stay.  A preliminary economic impact assessment of the National Park initiative was generally positive with respect to creating these kinds of activities.  An imaginative Council and an interested populace could have put together the right kinds of zoning infrastructure outside the Park to support this activity.

But, in November 2011, Islanders rejected the National park proposal.  There were many reasons why they did so, but it mostly boils down to a perceived negative impact by having many many tourists visiting our island, and by the ways in which park lands might negatively affect our properties.  When I saw the Park debate turning that way, I was surprised, but it revealed a lot to me about the kind of place we are, and the kind of values people hold.  And I think the acrimony and spite of that debate limited our ability to do anything significant with the tourist economy for a very long time.

With respect to tourism, Bowen will continue to enjoy visitors who come once or twice for a day or two.  they will walk around the lake, rent kayaks and perhaps stop at the Pub to have a beer.  But every effort to attract visitors to stay longer than a night has been met with opposition.  We have had retreat centres constrained by covenants in the case of the Bowen Lodge by the Sea and The Vineyard (which became The Orchard when the owners sold out).  We have had proposal after proposal to allow camping defeated.  We had an inn proposal at Artisan Square defeated.  And the National Park was voted down.  That is a clear message.

There is nothing "wrong" with our economy

Planning our economy is a tricky business because we are a municipality with the economy of a neighbourhood.  We should not plan as if we were a town, a city or a First Nation.  We are an island that is largely populated with commuters.  The commuters bring in salaries that make it possible for non-commuters to stay here.  Our basic commercial services profile looks like Dunbar rather than Squamish or Tofino.  We have nothing here that people can't get elsewhere, except for a unique marine environment, which is accessible from our two marinas and kayak rentals place.  Our major natural draw are the trails around Killarney Lake and up Mount Gardner.  These generate very little economic activity.

As a community, as an economic entity and by the standards of Canadian life in general, Bowen Island is a complete success.  It is a wealthy enclave with a very high standard of living.  We have a very low rate of unemployment because people that can't afford to live here leave.  Most businesses are stable, but we are a very difficult place for entrepreneurs in general to start new businesses.  And so I imagine that we will live pretty much with the status quo for a long time now, and I imagine that most islanders will be satisfied with that.

I think, despite vision statements to the contrary that we are NOT committed to a diverse economy or a diverse society.  We are slow to build affordable housing, seniors housing or density that allows for a mix of incomes and family types.  Most of our social problems are outsourced to the mainland, which has been the strategy that has sustained ever increasing wealth.  If we were to look at the amount of equity owned in Bowen Island properties I think we would see that this has increased extensively over the past few decades.  This is the real nature of our economy.  It is the real engine and nit has veto power.  Any strategy that threatens the upward climb of property values will be defeated, obstructed or rejected out of hand.

Those of us that were lucky enough to buy land on Bowen are now amongst the richest people in the world.

We are part of a bigger system as well, and our economic well being is dependant on many factors out of the control of the Bowen Island Council.  We live or die based on the stable nature of our current economic system.  As long as it stays healthy, our commuters will stay healthy and the local economy of Bowen will continue to thrive.  If it radically changes, the local economy of Bowen will radically change as well.

The Bowen island Transition group is doing a series of analyses about this option, but this is not an option that Islanders will readily choose nor is it one that we can create with a few policy decisions.  Transition planning is an exercise in preparing for shift, much like earthquake preparedness or emergency planning.

Bowen In Transition is engaging in a number of protoypes of activities that could take place in an uch different kind of economy.  Their initiatives have been met with some scepticism but I believe they are useful to give us an indication of directions we might be able to go should the circumstances warrant it.

What is needed?

Nothing lasts forever. Our current economic system is stable and well established and may last for the rest of my lifetime.  And as long as it does, the economy on Bowen island will remain the same.

But should their be a shift, it will be a sudden one.  If that should happen, our economy will become much more dependant on community.

I believe that instead of doing economic development planning, we should be doing community development.  A far better use of our attention and resources would be to focus on the spaces and practices that help us come together as community.  Top amongst these is the development of a multiuser community centre which we can use to meet, and work in to develop community capacities.  A second proposal would be to carefully plan so that we don't lose current places of community.  A vibrant village is a key asset in community, and sacrificing it to ferry marshalling would force less and less interaction between Islanders in our shared space, and more and more retreating to private homes and cars.

Community festivals such as Steamship Days, BowFest, BowFeast and Halloween are very important as well.  These events are good uses of taxpayer dollars because they bring us together in a way that private business or economic development does not.

I have thought long and hard about this issue mostly because I don't actually like what I have concluded.  I think a diverse and vibrant economy on Bowen is possible but not under the current economic conditions.  Without a massive collapse in real estate value, or a fundamental restructuring of our economy, Bowen will continue to be a wealthy, exclusive and well off community. I feel we owe it to our kids to use or position of privilege to leave them a resilient community where our reaction to massive change will not be hiding away in our private homes, but coming together in community to reinvent Bowen.  Perhaps that won't happen in my life time, but if it does. I will be glad that we planned for it.