Squamish has a newly drafted plan to encourage and guide the district’s economy, but it was met with mixed reviews from some councillors.
Kate Mulligan, the new District of Squamish economic development officer, presented the draft Hardwired for Business, Economic Development Action Plan 2017-2019 for feedback in various forums last week, including to council members, to the Squamish Chamber of Commerce and at the Mayor’s Breakfast held at the Squamish Public Library on Thursday.
The goal of the plan, as stated in a report to council, is to “raise the standard of living for all through increased sustainable economic development.”
The aim is to have increased access to employment in Squamish and a skilled labour force that is able to fill local jobs.
In the first year of the plan, a Squamish Economic Development Steering Group will be struck, made up of representatives from business, Squamish Nation, the provincial government, Squamish Downtown Business Improvement Association, Squamish Chamber of Commerce and other stakeholders. That committee will create a community economic development plan and an “Economic Health Dashboard” to track the plan’s progress, according to Mulligan.
During the first year, a skills inventory analysis will be completed with community partners to see what the labour needs and shortages are. A framework for a Squamish Business Accelerator Program will also be established.
A business accelerator program typically assists startup companies with mentorship and investors.
The timeline of the economic development plan is “aggressive,” according to Mulligan.
“I think it is going to take the collaboration of all the organizations to be fully implemented in a year, however, I think it is doable,” she said.
Coun. Susan Chapelle liked the global perspective of the plan, but was critical of most other aspects of it when it was presented to the committee of the whole on May 16. She said that each District plan seems to be working in isolation, when a more holistic approach is required.
She said she knows of 10 local business owners who are currently looking to expand, but Squamish lacks the space for them to move to. “I have deep concerns for the economic development of the community,” she said. She also questioned what happened to previous District plans and programs such as the Business Retention and Expansion program and why another plan was needed.
Coun. Ted Prior echoed Chapelle’s concerns and said he has attended economic development meetings in Squamish for 20 years.
“A lot of things are discussed. I am more action oriented. When you started saying we are going to form a steering committee, I started to get into a cold sweat. ‘Oh my God, here we go again,’” he said.
Mulligan countered that the current economic development plan is a consolidation of other strategies and plans.
Mulligan also said she doesn’t want the new economic development plan to be stalled at the committee stage either.
“I am definitely not all about committees, but I recognize that there is no way that the District can play a role under every pillar and actually implement initiatives. It is not our role or our mandate, so we have to rely on our economic development partners,” she said.
Prior and Coun. Doug Race also questioned why there wasn’t a proposal for a standalone economic development entity separate from the District as had been discussed previously.
Mulligan said it is too early to say what will ultimately come out of the steering committee, but it may be a standalone economic entity.
Not all on council were critical of the new plan. Mayor Patricia Heintzman and Coun. Karen Elliott voiced full support when it was presented to about 20 attendees at the Mayor’s Breakfast.
“I think what I am most excited about is that after two and a half years, we now have someone in Kate’s position and Kate has a community-facing partnership and collaborative idea of economic development,” she said. “I think now we can actually embrace our role as government in terms of setting the table and listening and being responsive in a way that we haven’t been since the start of this council’s term anyway.”
Squamish’s Mike Nelson, of consulting firm Cascade Environmental Resource Group
who was also at the breakfast, said some of Squamish’s biggest economic issues likely can’t be solved by municipal government anyway.
“A lot of the issues, quite frankly, aren’t municipal issues,” he told The Chief. “Training etcetera, I don’t see how that is unique to Squamish. I think we have to focus on what we can do. We can focus on rezoning and opportunities for affordable housing.”
One of the main issues for Cascade, which has 15 employees who live in the Sea to Sky Corridor, is staff retention due to a lack of affordable housing, Nelson said.
Other communities in B.C. offer the same wages, but have more affordable housing, Nelson noted.
The Squamish Chamber of Commerce is dedicated to enhancing the quality of life in the Squamish community by actively supporting business, economic growth and diversification. The Chamber takes a leadership role in advocating for the interest of Squamish business and provides member services such as networking and educational events, policy positions and partnerships with other organizations.