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Saying “I Do” to the EDO

Pemberton has always been full of potential, now it’s trying to marry that potential with a huge opportunity

It’s a good thing Alexandra Ross is organized.

She’s going to need to be.

She has less than 800 days to ready Pemberton for the great Olympic opportunity, and nine bosses to answer to, in addition to the taxpayers of Pemberton and Area C, as she steps into the brand new office of Economic Development Consultant (EDC) for Pemberton and Area C.

With a host of meetings scheduled before her contract had even been finalized, a boot-strapping budget, office space available in Whistler and on Robson Square, and the first project in her in-tray, she’s hitting the ground at full throttle.

In Pemberton, to be faced with a huge opportunity, but with scarcely enough resources to exploit it, is not a new situation.

What is new is a critical mass of optimism.

Consider the specific opportunities on the books: An Airport Definition Report commissioned by the Airport Authority to get a sense of the hard costs and upgrades required to prepare the airport to receive regular air services. An environmental impact assessment underway on the Ryan River Independent Power Project. The Village of Pemberton investigating its own microhydro project on Pemberton Creek. A Community Forest under negotiation. The newly established Whistler 2020 Food Task-Force, set to partner Pemberton primary producers with the Whistler market and its sustainability drive. Local committees doing the groundwork on a Drug and Alcohol Rehab Centre, and a Seniors’ residence and tiered care facility. Construction continuing on the new Community Centre and library. The Child Care Centre filling up spots. Developers working on a small lot subdivision for Silverthorne, and a small acreage subdivision at Ravens Crest. Boundary expansion applications. Five-thousand square feet of new commercial space, with residential above, being developed on Portage Road. The international concert promoter Live Nation proposing a multi-day European-style summer music festival for this summer. The world’s largest private school operator, GEMS, pursuing an international private school in Pemberton. Seventy-five members signing on to join the Track Club, adopting a role as “the community that slides”, with the view to putting local kids on the podium in 2014.

In the 18 months since Chamber President Paul Selina made a presentation to council, urging them to create a more welcoming environment for new business, improve communication between business and government, and employ an Economic Development Officer, there’s been a shift in Pemberton — and it’s starting to feel to many at the helm of Pemberton’s business community as if the tide is coming in.

Says Selina, “I have to give credit to council, although they were initially defensive, they really sat up and listened. They put money into the EDC. The environment for doing business has definitely changed . I think the environment for doing business at the moment is very positive.”

“We’ve had some good coverage,” he explains, of the interest Pemberton is generating from potential investors. “We were featured in Business and Trade magazine. We had great exposure through Winterfest. Tourism Pemberton and David Mackenzie are doing a great job of promoting the area, and in general, because of the Olympics, people are beginning to notice us a bit more. And if Live Nation and GEMS come off, and I’m optimistic they will, it will really put us on the map.”

The catalyst for this sudden effervescence? The 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

But to really capitalize on the raft of 2010 opportunities and ensure the entire community would benefit, it was widely acknowledged that Pemberton needed a dedicated, and paid, office.

Says local realtor, chamber director and 2006 Citizen of the Year, Lisa Ames, “There are opportunities presenting themselves to us right now that we have to grasp and run with. The Live Nation plans and the proposed private school are two initiatives we cannot let pass us by. These will have long-lasting economic benefits to our community and I don’t think they compromise our values or lifestyle. We need them. And we need our new EDO to find other ways to capture this momentum so we can achieve our true potential.”

Pemberton’s strength has always been its potential.

In 2002, Community Futures undertook an Entrepreneurial Capacity Test for Communities to assess the region’s capacity to foster small business growth. Pemberton received its highest grade for “opportunity”, followed by “quality of life”. Failing grades were given for “innovation”, “education and training”, “money/capital and resources”, and “role of government.”

It seems opportunity is easily identified, but trickier to seize.

With the event horizon of 2010 speeding this way, the time has come to act.

And part of that, means a willingness to risk failing.

Says Mayor Jordan Sturdy, “I don’t think it’s crazy to have some optimism! I’m very optimistic about our town. What’s the harm in failing once or twice? How are we going to go really sideways? Of course you can, if you’re building an $880 million conference centre, but we’re taking such tiny steps that we’re just going to trip, not fall.

“From a personal perspective, I fail every year on my farm. Every year, some things wildly exceed your expectations. Some meet them. And some don’t. They fail. And if you’re diversified enough, you can just learn from it, and move on.”

The outlay for the community on this particular gamble amounts to $60,000 a year, until Dec. 31, 2010, shared amongst the taxpayers of Pemberton and Area C of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District.

The consultant answers to a nine-person “2010 Economic Development Commission”, established by bylaw and comprising representatives of the SLRD, Village of Pemberton, Chamber of Commerce, Spirit of B.C. Committee, and agricultural community, who further report to the Pemberton Valley Utilities & Services Committee (formerly Joint Operations Committee). Oversight is provided by the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, although the Utilities Committee has been delegated authority to deal with contractual negotiations.

The first task for the office will be to compile a comprehensive inventory of the region’s businesses, primary producers, cottage industries and service providers, which will be provided to VANOC and the province’s 2010 Ministry of Economic Development. “Almost like a yellow pages so people coming into the area for 2010 have access to local services. And that helps the Olympics organizers to meet their green goals, by going as local as possible,” says Selina.

“The whole community will be able to take advantage of 2010. It doesn’t matter how small a business is. It can still benefit. The average business in B.C. has between one and four employees. We only have a sense of the businesses in town through chamber membership, but we know there are a lot of cottage industries going on behind the scenes and they’re an important part of our economy. So we can look at creating partnerships, or linking some businesses up with others.”

Hard on the heels of the directory will come a 2010 Business Workshop, to get the community’s entrepreneurial juices flowing, and raise awareness as to what opportunities the Olympics offer.

Says VANOC’s Director of Community Relations, Maureen Douglas, "Several Pemberton businesses have already been awarded construction contracts for 2010 venues in Whistler. With the arrival of an EDO, this role may help other businesses stay informed of all upcoming opportunities. Pemberton has taken an important step to maximize all opportunities resulting from the 2010 Winter Games by creating an EDO position in the community. From volunteerism, to community celebrations to opportunities for businesses to bid (and win) on projects related to the Games, Pemberton is now resourced to take advantage of every opportunity."

And Alexandra Ross is ready to make good on the community’s investment.

• • •

For Economic Development Commission Chair, Peter Vandenberg, it couldn’t come at a better time. “We’re at a critical juncture. In the next six months, Pemberton has to get it together.

“The Olympics is an opportunity in the short-term for everyone to do well. For people to come together in the community, who haven’t before. We see this opportunity arising for a summer music festival. If that’s successful, Pemberton could come out of the shadow of Whistler and become its own entity. If that concert goes on, Pemberton will be the most prepared community for 2010 there is. It comes at a time when we can use that experience.”

The Winterfest, a grassroots community initiative that Vandenburg and partner France Lamontagne were instrumental in creating, is another event providing vital experience. Going into its fourth year, Winterfest is now developing serious traction.

“There are a bunch of new people on board,” says Lamontagne, “and an amazing energy right now. The committee has 20 people, a lot of new blood, great people who really want to do something and are taking ownership of the events. I haven’t felt that the excitement around Winterfest is about the Olympics. We’re first and foremost creating a festival for this community. In the back of our minds, we know that the better we get at the logistics of hosting a festival, closing a street, getting permits, then the easier it will be in 2010.”

But for Lamontage and Vandenberg, the bottom line is that it’s about building community.

Selina agrees. “We’re always struggling for services here. People are requesting seniors housing, ice rinks, things for children to do. The largest benefit for me from the Olympics is the legacy that the money could bring to the community. We have already started an account with money in it. Obviously, if we attract the attention of the 10,000 media and the 8,000 non-registered media who are all looking for a story outside the Games, the benefits to businesses and the area are enormous with that coverage. And we’re just trying to leverage that. The 2010 Economic Development Commission is really about the benefits beyond 2010. It’s just using 2010 to see the Industrial Park full, the downtown revitalized as a great retail experience, and a good balance of things to do for everyone from seniors to children, so we have a sustainable community.”

• • •

While its strength has been in its potential, Pemberton’s weakness has been identified as its small, primarily residential, taxpayer base. With only 86 licenced businesses in the Village of Pemberton and 160 members of the Chamber of Commerce, the 5,550 strong population has no deep pockets to tap in order to develop new amenities. And with twice the number of children than the provincial average, and 70 per cent of housing stock having been built in the past decade, the infrastructure is playing catch-up to the appetite for services.

Says Ames: “In the past month, I have had more inquiries than ever from people wanting to relocate to our area from elsewhere in the province, as well as from overseas. Our transaction volume is over double what it was last year. We have experienced busy markets before, but this time it feels different… there is a ‘buzz’. Personally, I wouldn’t want to raise my family anywhere else. But some people might be compromising financially, giving up better paying jobs elsewhere, in order to live here. Anything we can do to make our local economy stronger helps to keep people here.”

A catalyst, by definition, accelerates a chemical reaction, but remains itself unchanged. The Olympics is just that — an external influence that will retain its own integrity throughout the process, no matter how explosive the reaction here in our little Sea to Sky test tube might be.

Pemberton will be changed, just as it has been changed over the last decade, by its proximity to Whistler.

Says Vandenberg, “Squamish is changing too, and when the highway is finished, they’re going to be a bedroom community for Vancouver, more so than for Whistler. So, for human resources reasons, I think Whistler needs to work more closely with Pemberton, and they probably don’t even realize it yet. It’s going to be big. But it’s up to us in Pemberton to create that commerce, so that everybody benefits.”

Pemberton has a little over two years to build capacity, to cram as much training and preparation in as possible, in order to launch from the blocks when the starting gun goes off. And during this narrow window, the EDC, the chamber, and the Spirit Committee hope to see the entire community galvanize behind a common vision for Pemberton in 2011.

What might it look like?

A better transit service linking Pemberton to Whistler. Says France Lamontagne, “Our kids can’t even go into Whistler on Friday night to see a movie, because there’s no bus to get home.”

An industrial park full of businesses, to create a critical mass of commerce. Growing traction for Pemberton’s “brand”, to help promote a robust local economy of cottage industries, artists and primary producers.

Says Paul Selina: “What we’ve got in Pemberton is so unique. The biggest thing we’re selling here is lifestyle. We’re not attracting anyone because it’s a hub of industry. So if someone wants to locate a business here, and live in a pristine environment next to nature, and not spoil it, then that’s great.”

And an inspired and supported group of young athletes on their way to the 2014 Games.

“We’re exactly the type of town that can produce Olympians,” enthuses Peter Vandenberg. “How many kids under 13 live here? (Former Olympian) Dr. Hugh Fisher says that in sliding sports, there’s a definite learning curve based on how many times you go down the track. We are going to have this facility right next door, and we could have some decent medal contenders in 2014.”

So we’re saying “I do”.

As at any wedding, we may not know both the parties very well. We may not know the full story of how they came to be together. We might nurse our own cynicism about true love and happy endings… but we allow ourselves, amongst the champagne supping and speech making, to enjoy a moment of hope. To be truly optimistic. To say yes to risk, and opportunity, and to toast to a happy and prosperous future.