Squamish Chief: Bringing Local Jobs And Boosting The Local Economy

When it comes to rapid growth, both Airdrie, Alberta and Halifax, Nova Scotia have found healthy ways to develop economically. Though neither mirrors Squamish, they offer zoning, affordability and business ecosystem solutions that bring local jobs.

In February, the District of Squamish hired Kate Mulligan as economic development officer, a position that had been vacant for nearly two years.

Mulligan’s salary comes from $286,239 that has been set aside for economic development, including two staff positions, according to a District spokesperson, who noted a variety of staff share budgets with initiatives that are economic development focused.

By June, a three-year economic plan rolled out “to address setting the right conditions for businesses to grow,” Mulligan said, like land use, skilled labour supply, and business support services.

So, how can Squamish create jobs?

“There are a number of opportunities in Squamish,” Mulligan said, highlighting the lifestyle, infrastructure such as access to an international port and highway upgrades and an entrepreneurial spirit. But the challenge of being a high-growth district close to the Lower Mainland where affordability is an issue, she added, compounds with limited employment lands.

The City of Airdrie added over 30,000 people in the last 10 years, according to Statistics Canada.

Located in close proximity to Calgary, when that city’s population crossed one million, an influx of people moved to Airdrie, according to Kent Rupert, team leader for economic development for Airdrie.

“When you have a community growing residentially, it is just as important to grow on the economic side,” he told The Chief, adding that without programs and services, economic growth stagnates.

Airdrie paired eight per cent residential growth with eight per cent business growth over 10 years, said Rupert. In 2006, the city did a sector analysis identifying four key areas to track, then began public engagement looking at why businesses move to a community and why they stay, citing reasons like affordable housing.

Creating a website specifically for economic development allowed businesses to get information such as tax rates and statistics in one place.

Being present in the community was key, Rupert noted, with an active social media presence and greeting new and existing owners himself as a middle person between city hall and the community. Also, Airdrie has “a strong working relationship with our chamber [of commerce],” he added.

The business satisfaction survey was “one of the most valuable tools,” said Rupert, to understand challenges at a mass level. Held every two years, the survey asks about inspections, taxation, leases, planning, housing and economic development.

“We wanted to know the answers to build programs and services so we can refer those businesses to the right resources,” Rupert said.

Furthermore, Airdrie won national and provincial awards for its eight-month online entrepreneurial program, Smart Start, where participants partner with a local mentor to discuss topics like leasing, taxes and marketing. “It allows them to feel like they’re not alone,” said Rupert.

“It created its own mini-business ecosystem.”

Currently, Squamish does not have recent online resources, Mulligan confirmed, but the goal “is to work in partnership with all the organizations that have a hand with economic development.”

Mulligan will release a communications review plan, part of the economic development strategy, with implementation expected by winter this year.

A steering committee has been created. Mulligan said the Squamish Chamber of Commerce is conducting a survey of its membership with questions about challenges and opportunities.

“We need to have a more proactive outreach,” she said.

Focusing on existing businesses to increase local employment is a premise of the strategy guided by the new draft Official Community Plan, Mulligan added.

“The new OCP has a plethora of policies that are aiming to protect commercial and industrial lands,” said Jonas Velaniskis, the District’s director of planning. “It outright discourages any more re-designation of industrial lands to other forms.”

“Having these lands weaved into the fabric of each neighbourhood makes more interesting communities and neighbourhoods,” he said, adding that the OCP supports expansion in the former BC Rail North Yard.

Future expansion of Squamish Terminals and relocation of industrial businesses from the oceanfront to the other side of the Mamquam Blind Channel are also included.

The development of the creative sector downtown will join policy to “support entrepreneurial activity in the cultural heart of the community,” Velaniskis said, making clear that an affordable housing strategy is critical.

Land designation was integral in Halifax where a 1.8 per cent growth rate is expected this year, according to the Conference Board of Canada.

The coastal city worked with the Halifax Partnership – an organization dedicated to the city’s economic development that assists hundreds of local businesses each year – to create industrial growth along the port and foster the creative sector in the downtown core, according to Kate Greene, policy and strategic initiatives program manager for Halifax Regional Municipality.

Making rules more straightforward is part of the process, said Greene. “We want to open up how we are regulating land use and bylaws.” So, they are concurrently working on policy and bylaws to make it easier for businesses, industry and residents.

Halifax applied gentle densification to combat unaffordable housing, said Greene, by creating capacity for secondary suites. Designing a mixed-use space beyond the traditional where lighter industrial and creative sector craftsmanship can grow was a priority, she said, helping entrepreneurs and new businesses thrive.

“People did not want to see massive change to our form,” she said. “We created infill that was sensitive using gentle density downtown.”

In Whistler, the private sector is taking the entrepreneurial spirit into its own hands. Liz Francis manages The Network Hub, a co-working space that rents desks and mailboxes for home businesses. In fact, they shared the space with Ridebooker, which doubled in size and since expanded into their own offices. The model is successful, Francis said, in part because it provides an affordable solution to small businesses where renting out light industrial or office space would not be feasible.

“It’s hard for people currently in government and in the traditional sense of a workplace to see there’s this massive way of working that’s breaking away from traditional format,” she said.

Coun. Susan Chappelle hoped to open a co-working hub with a public education space in Squamish. However, the small business owner said the high taxes and lack of available space made it difficult and the new OCP does not adequately address employment.

The District is looking down the road 70 years, said Mayor Patricia Heintzman. “Requirements are being embedded within policy so it’s clear to developers that there is a minimal expectation for providing commercial and office space.”

The challenge, she said, is that developers cannot lease that space out immediately because it takes time to build.

“Without a doubt we have too many people commuting,” said Heintzman. “We can’t dissociate development from transportation and affordable housing issues.”

Creating a diversity of housing and densifying along transit corridors is essential, she added.

The government doesn’t make businesses or jobs, she noted. “Our biggest role is making sure we are attracting the talented people with the energy who are going to make jobs.” Part of the employment land strategy is being mindful of retaining these lands for commercial and industrial use, she said, adding the Newport Beach oceanfront development was pre-zoned for employment, anticipating 2,500 jobs.

“We have a talent base here. We don’t have the jobs that meet the needs.”

The new economic development officer encourages entrepreneurship and business expansion.

“I’m hoping there is a more tangible and visual impact from the work that we do in the coming months,” she said.

Source: Squamish Chief