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  • Gayle Baker

Economic Recovery - A Better Normal?

May 22

Twelve folks participated in this Zoom session, with special guests Jessica Harkema, Executive Director of our Chamber, and Francine Carlin, Chair of the Community Economic Development Commission (CEDC). Predictably, much of the conversation focused on business recovery and thoughts about achieving a recovery to a better normal.

We began with a question for Jessica about the Southern Gulf Islands Tourism Partnership Society (SGITPS). Receiving the 2% room tax added to accommodations for their funding as well as local government support and grants, this initiative is province-wide, offered in 90% of the communities in British Columbia, from Vancouver to Salmon Arm. Guided by the focus upon protecting our natural resources and addressing climate action, this group will provide additional opportunities for communities to manage their destination as well as the experiences of visitors and residents alike.

Locally, this new society represents all five Gulf Islands and works with the tourism or chamber organization on each of these islands. On March 31, 2020, this group took over the program from our Chamber. With a close relationship to Tourism BC and the same messaging and timelines, this group is 100% committed to better understanding and guiding tourism on our islands.It maintains a very close relationship with our Chamber, with multiple contacts each week, allowing our Chamber to set and implement some Salt Spring-specific objectives.


SGITPS is driven by the goal of creating a sustainable tourism industry. This sustainability would consist of reducing the current boom/bust tourism cycle by attracting more tourists in the shoulder and off seasons. This group is also seeking to focus marketing efforts on visitors with similar values to those of the islands as well as attracting visitors who will stay longer and consume less. Another focus of SGITPS is to develop better connections between neighbouring islands. This new group is getting up to speed and released a survey on tourism just this week

According to Jessica, SGITPS has the resources and access to long-term funding to successfully accomplish their goals. But, she cautioned, these changes will not happed overnight and must be seen as long-term goals rather than short-term objectives.

Destination planning and conservation of our resources is made even more challenging by an

increasing number of short-term vacation rentals. Estimated at over 290, these properties are

non-regulated, non-commercial, and non taxed. Demand for these self-contained units has risen

in comparison to other local accommodations during the pandemic, assumedly because travelers

do not seek to interact when they travel, preferring a more self-isolating mode of

accommodation.

While many felt that Salt Spring should not be included when it was originally-proposed, Francine said that it may be time to begin discussions about Salt Spring’s exemption from the Speculation and Visitor Tax. Currently, funds generated go the the province. There seems to be agreement that any interest in inclusion in this tax would require that funding be returned directly to the region and invested in affordable housing. It was suggested that the reasons for the initial resistance this tax need to be fully-understood before re-opening this discussion.

There seemed to be agreement that Salt Springers prefer tourists that carry a smaller ecological footprint (like arriving by foot and by bike).If we are to accomplish attracting visitors who leave their cars at home, we need to provide for them: A bike lane from Fulford to Ganges is one good place to start.

Residents also prefer those seeking local experiential adventures rather than those only wishing to purchase t-shirts and souvenirs. While we already have a wealth of possibilities ranging from visits with our many fine artists and craftspeople to working alongside our many farm families, if we want to successfully-attract these experiential journeyers, comprehensive marketing efforts are needed. (Francine noted that the five-year plan of the SGITP includes these initiatives.)

According to Gary, our Transportation Commission could manage parking. He believes that Ganges congestion is partially the result of free parking. Our transit system is a key alternative for visitors who do not want/need to bring their vehicles here. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has hurt our transit system by the temporary prohibition on collecting fares as well as the limit of six to a bus due to the need for social distancing. The province says that there will be financial help to transit systems, and Gary is hopeful.

We were reminded that tourism is the second largest economic driver of Salt Spring’s economy, after retirement income. How can we bring other elements, such as water and fire protection into the discussion? While the answer to this is complex, Jessica did say that approved accommodations and legal B&Bs do give information to visitors about water conservation and fire safe practices. With the expansion of home gardens as well as the expected increase in agriculture as a result of this pandemic, what will be the impact on our water resources? What about renters - are they careful with our precious water and aware of fire dangers?

While there are many unanswered questions, we were reminded that both the Climate Action and the Farm Plans are moving into implementation stages, key players are beginning to meet in a Housing Committee under the leadership of Laura Patrick, and the Business and Farm Recovery Task Force, also under Laura’s leadership, will soon be posting the results of its efforts.

In response to the question about how these efforts can be inclusive, we learned that there are well over 200 non-profit organizations on Salt Spring - some working in isolation but others beginning to collaborate effectively. In response to the question of who will bring the groups together to work collaboratively, Francine responded that money is necessary to fund a team to take on this initiative. Jessica told us that she is working on a grant to set up systems for more integrated planning. We were reminded that while getting grant money for implementation is relatively easy, securing operational funding for implementation is far more difficult.

One ongoing battle to secure extra funds concerns our rural designation. While Salt Spring is formerly designated as rural, we have not gained full access to rural funding from provincial funders such as the Islands Coastal Economic Trust. While Salt Spring has requested equity - and this request has even come as an Order in Council from the Province - success accessing this area of funding has been elusive.

Recently, Salt Spring Solutions published an article asking Islanders to envision a better island, poised in a series of compelling What if. . . ? questions. Who is going continue this conversation? The answer is the same: money needs to be secured to fund a team to coordinate the various conversations and build a collaboration for the implementation of resulting objectives.

While it is true that there are many conversations and much fragmentation, Gary reminded us that there are also many fruitful collaborative conversations taking place. He cited the links between the Area Farm and Climate Action Plans. And, while there is a level of chaos in the number of conversations taking place throughout our island, individuals and organizations can have a great deal of influence in our somewhat dispersed system, arguably more than in a top-down municipal system.This pandemic has already brought together threads such as the Chamber and the CEDC, opening up conversations about new ways to collaborate, such as jointly funding a staff position.

Once participant nostalgically remembered a Salt Spring that got along well without tourism 30 years ago. He remembered a Saturday Market that was initially designed around the needs of Salt Springers by bringing folks from off-Island to sell the items islanders needed. While now residents stay away from Ganges on Saturdays, in the past, this market drew residents and provided a social opportunity for islanders and off-Island vendors to hang out together after their buying and bartering had been completed.

While our Saturday Market’s Make it, Bake it or Grow locally rule has attracted visitors from all over the world, this participant remembered with pleasure a time when Salt Spring’s economy was driven for and by Salt Springers.

(One interesting piece of information gathered by BC Ferries that belies our assumption about being flooded by tourists is that the largest number of Salt Spring arrivals are visiting friends and family, followed by second home owners. Tourism ranks only third. Among these tourists, most come from Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.)

Is our economy diversified enough? If not - what else would drive our economy? How can we employ youth and young families so that they can afford to stay? Living in a community of predominantly seniors, according to one, Isn’t very nice.

Jessica reminded us that many of us first came to Salt Spring as visitors, often being attracted by the Saturday Market. While we loved what we saw, the crowding of the Market is even changing many visitors’ reactions to it. She told us that too many tell her that they will never come to Salt Spring on a summer Saturday again, opting instead to visit before or after the summer crowds.

The Islands Trust was established so that the Gulf Islands would remain a protected resource for all British Columbians to enjoy. We were reminded that any decisions to focus only on our own needs will have an impact province-wide. Some believe that environmental tourism is an answer, While a widely-supported concept, good planning is essential so that our natural resources do not get over utilized.

What about a Rhodes Scholar Program here? What about an arts programs to attract the kind of tourists we want? Efforts are underway to establish more agri-tourism and arts-tourism. The key is to develop something that is economically-sustainable without ongoing dependence upon grants. Would the establishment of a social enterprise help to accomplish this?

How can our community contribute to Laura’s Business and Farm RecoveryTask Force? Jessica responded that the need for quick action made it impossible to do the planning and collaboration that would have been optimal. Nevertheless, she has created a one-year, actionable plan and is awaiting input from this Task Force.

One piece of startling news was gathered from a recent survey done by the Business and Farm Recovery Task Force: 50% of our businesses are not sure that they will re-open. Their future is dependent upon federal and provincial subsidies as well as the duration of the pandemic.

The Transitions Salt Spring Enterprise Co-op (TSSEC) may be an answer to some. While TSSEC’s current mandate is to invest in green initiatives with loans limited to $5,000, there is a possibility that this investment cap could be increased. Another possibility might be community-supported mortgaging in which residents could support local mortgages here on Salt Spring.

(Note from Donald and Elizabeth: It is correct that TSSEC special low-interest microloans related to farms or climate action (water collection systems, heat pumps, e-bikes, EV chargers, solar panels etc) are limited to $5000 each. We have collected over $20,000 from our members to lend out to such projects.

(Note from Donald and Elizabeth: It is correct that TSSEC special low-interest microloans related to farms or climate action (water collection systems, heat pumps, e-bikes, EV chargers, solar panels etc) are limited to $5000 each. We have collected over $20,000 from our members to lend out to such projects.

However, we have no fixed upper limit for ordinary loans to support green entrepreneurs and businesses.Our largest loan to date was for $15,000 for a three year term.

TSSEC has loaned out a total of over $125,000 for 21 different projects since our inception in 2011.)

This Zoom session concluded shortly after 1:00 with thanks to our special guest as well as to all who participated in an interesting discussion about creating a better normal. While we gained a great deal of information, many intriguing questions remain unanswered.


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