Canada’s National Observer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Transportation, short-term rentals and disorder related to the toxic drug crisis in city centres were the top issues raised with Premier David Eby at the State of the Island Economic Summit on Thursday.
After addressing the crowd at Nanaimo’s conference centre, Eby fielded questions and concerns from business and industry leaders, politicians and communities on the key issues hurting economic development across Vancouver Island.
Eby acknowledged the devastating economic impacts to the Port Alberni region and tourism hot spots of Tofino and Ucluelet after damage from a wildfire in June blocked or restricted traffic for most of the summer along Highway 4 — the key transportation route to western Vancouver Island.
Early estimates from the region’s chamber of commerce said the initial closure of the transportation corridor cost businesses $44 million and revived long-standing calls from communities and First Nations for the province to create a secondary route so they aren’t stranded without fuel, food or essential supplies.
The focus of construction efforts during the summer was to ensure safety along the highway after the fire, but devising a second route is a priority for the Ministry of Transportation, Eby said, adding it was too early to provide a timeline for action.
Resolving potential geotechnical challenges and assessing the environmental impacts of possible routes need to be worked out.
“So it’s not going to be tomorrow, but we are advancing that work,” he said.
The province is also working to find ways to support businesses impacted by closures to ensure they make it through to the next tourist season, Eby said.
On frustration with the ongoing waves of cancelled sailings, Eby said BC Ferries has been hit by a “perfect storm” that includes an aging fleet, spikes in demand and acute staffing shortages being faced by employers across all sectors.
The province invested to cap fares, BC Ferries has an aggressive investment plan in place to buy the boats it needs, and the province is holding the corporation accountable for ensuring core services, Eby said, referencing plans to fine the ferry service if key sailings are cancelled due to staffing or mechanical issues.
“Just like in our schools and our hospitals, and with the ferry system, we’re playing catchup after years of underinvestment and lack of planning, but we are doing that work and we will turn the corner.”
The province is taking a multi-pronged approach to dealing with the toxic drug crisis, Eby said after communities and businesses stressed they feel the disorder and impacts are spiralling out of control.
To deal with the poisoned drug supply that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2016, the province launched a health-care workforce strategy, non-profits are encouraged to open more treatment facilities, a well-resourced provincial team is working to identify repeat violent offenders, and funding for policing in communities has been raised, Eby said.
“There are a small number of people [who] can cause a huge amount of chaos in a community and our ability to intercept those folks — and either get them on a better path or keep them in jail — is absolutely essential.”
The province is striving to build funded treatment beds or housing supports for those with complex needs and has invested heavily in Indigenous justice centres with wraparound services to break the cycle and address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the court system, he said.
However, addressing people’s well-being is not acceptance of street disorder or unacceptable conduct, Eby said.
Legislation is in the works to ban the use of illegal drugs in public spaces such as parks, building doorways and playgrounds.
“Front-line retail businesses and downtowns shouldn’t be the ones who pay the price for this larger crisis,” he said.
When concern was raised for people who had invested in properties for short-term rentals (STRs), Eby said he wasn’t intent on “demonizing” the sector.
However, the fact people can’t find housing is a large drag on the provincial economy.
As many as 80 per cent of the units in some condo buildings are STRs, he said.
Redirecting real estate investments into increasing the number of units on the housing market is key to overall economic growth at the provincial level, he said.
“I do recognize that it will be disruptive for a number of people that have these kinds of investment units,” Eby said.
“The good news is there are a huge number of people that are interested in long-term rental that are very happy to be tenants and you can maintain that investment. It just won’t be as lucrative.”
The societal shift from seeing housing as a place to live to a passive investment stream has had huge implications for people, families and the economy, he said.
“This is not a cost-free investment,” Eby said.
“This is something that has really caused an entire generation of people in our province, and across Canada to ask, ‘How am I going to build my future here?’”
Top image credit: B.C. Premier David Eby left chats with delegates at the Vancouver Island Economic Summit in Nanaimo on Oct 26, 2023 – Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
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