Mayor Leonard Krog Discusses Economics and Growth in Nanaimo, B.C.

Douglas talks to Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog about pulling the city out of the headlines — and out of its tailspin — to focus on governance and getting things done.

Mayor Krog at the Nanaimo Port Authority. Photo by Belle White.

Leonard Krog has a lot of love in Nanaimo.

The long-time former NDP MLA needs it, having taken over as the Hub City’s mayor a year ago, ending one of the darkest terms of civic politics in memory.

While the 66-year-old probably won’t be slipping on a pirate costume like one of his long-time mayoral predecessors, Frank Ney, he’s never an apologist for his boosterism, pretty much gushing about the town he was born in.

“My city is an undiscovered gem. And the truth is, it’s being discovered quite rapidly and the numbers confirm that,” he says, acknowledging that just over a year into the job the positive feedback is lingering.

“Part of that is just simply getting us out of the headlines and getting down to the work that any city has to do, let alone doing the things cities need to do as we confront a new century.”

Nanaimo is booming like it hasn’t since they stopped digging coal out of the ground 60 years ago. Building permit activity is up 106 per cent over 2018. By the end of 2019, development was at an all-time record pace — $445.3 million. Closer inspection shows residential building permits are up 83 per cent, while commercial permits have jumped 207 per cent.

Three hotels are in the works. Duke Point terminal is getting a $100 million expansion. The airport, 10 years ahead of passenger projections, is getting a $15 million upgrade. The population is growing at one of the highest rates in B.C.

Locals like to say Krog has helped the turnaround.

“It’s a steady hand at the wheel with Leonard and his council,” says John Hankins, CEO of the Mid Island Business Initiative. “Things are really good for Nanaimo. We’re starting to get noticed.”

This time for the right reasons.

Almost legendary tales of dysfunction at Nanaimo City Hall were not exaggerated. They didn’t need to be. Between 2013 and 2018, the former mayor and council were at war. And the casualties were three dozen staff, millions in potential investment and the city’s status, nationally and internationally.

Fractious, scandalous. It doesn’t begin to describe the chaotic tenure of Mayor Bill McKay and his council — one highlighted by dueling lawsuits, criminal investigations, even physical altercations.

Nanaimo-Ladysmith MP Paul Manly (Green) is delighted with having a high-functioning council in place.

“When I watch how they work together, they’re very professional with each other, even in disagreement. I think we’re miles ahead with that.”

And it’s hoped that cooperative spirit instills investor confidence.

“Money is mobile. It can go anywhere,” says Amrit Manhas, City of Nanaimo economic development officer. “Investors want certainty and then they have confidence.”

With McKay’s decision to not seek re-election a year ago, there was optimism that a hometown boy, Krog, would ditch provincial politics, take the helm and pilot Nanaimo away from the turbulence that had rocked it so savagely.

Krog says he listened to repeated calls for him to run for mayor.

Even Kim Smythe, Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce CEO and one-time president of the BC Liberal riding association, wanted Krog as mayor.

“My respect for him does go beyond the political boundaries, and we joke about it every time we see each other … He’s highly intellectual, has a gift for speaking and a gift for analyzing issues and problems and repositioning them as opportunities.”

Born in Nanaimo, Krog grew up in Coombs, before moving back home in 1979. He and his wife Sharon, together for 46 years, also share a law practice.

Clearly he’s enjoying himself. More than he did representing Parksville-Qualicum, then Nanaimo, in the Legislature for 19 years as an NDP MLA — mostly in opposition.

“The present is great, the future is bright,” says Krog. “We have our problems, but I wouldn’t want to live any place else.”

Douglas sat down with Krog in December for a conversation about his city and his approach.

Why did you run for mayor?

The essential reason is because people asked me. It’s not like I said I really want to do this job. It was people asking me as things got worse and worse, after the provincial election … I think there was a fair presumption by many that I would be around the cabinet table. When that didn’t happen, even more community leaders came to me and said they’re really concerned about the state of the city, and ‘you’re the guy who can pull things together.’

Some said you jeopardized the NDP government by resigning your provincial seat to seek the mayor’s chair.

Sheila Malcolmson got elected in the byelection with 49 per cent of the vote. I was quite confident that Sheila was going to win here.

Will it be hard to get provincial attention, given your break with the party and your history with Deputy Premier Carole James, whom you ran against as leader in 2003 and were then part of a caucus revolt against her leadership seven years later?

I don’t think so. I have a wonderful working relationship with our MLA Sheila Malcolmson. I’ve tried to draw attention to the unique problems Nanaimo faces, particularly around the homelessness and housing issues. And I think it behooves the [B.C.] government to pay attention to this city. We’re a very bright spot in the economy of this province. We’re an attractive, growing community and politics is about being smart and sensible. John Horgan needs the Nanaimo constituency as much as he needs Delta North [which flips between NDP and Liberal].

Was being passed over for a cabinet position, particularly the attorney general portfolio, influential in your quitting provincial politics?

There’s no question. If I’d felt I was going to be used in the benefit of what, at that point, was 17-plus years of experience in the Legislature, I might well have not listened to the call. But I can tell you, as the call here in the community got louder, and I was fairly satisfied I wasn’t going to advance there, my wife climbed on board very seriously and said, “Look, time to come home.”

What’s your strength, politically speaking?

I think people generally like me and that’s helpful. What’s the old line from kindergarten about a poor student who doesn’t work well with others? I think people would say I do work well with others. Regardless of the differences Horgan and I had, he made me his caucus chair. Specifically, given what had happened on Nanaimo council and the hellish life that Bill McKay had to live as mayor, I think a lot of people thought [I] would inspire good people to run and once elected should be able to work with those people who did win.

You’ve called this “the most thrilling time for Nanaimo.” Thrills can be precarious. I assume you were speaking optimistically?

I’m an optimistic person by nature. I worry about things. Any good lawyer thinks of all the things that could go wrong. But in terms of thrilling, we have all of the things in place. We have a wonderful developing and reaffirmed relationship with Snuneymuxw First Nation. We’ve been discovered by others outside our community who want to invest and live here and are prepared to make that move. We’re working well with the Port; we have a new [downtown waterfront area] protocol agreement with them. The university is here and wants to work with everybody.

What do you see as the biggest challenge?

It’s something that’s really beyond our jurisdiction and our responsibility and that is issues of homelessness, mental health and drug addiction, and the crime that goes with that.
We have, by our estimates, 600 to 800
homeless people in Nanaimo in a city just under 100,000 people. The City of Vancouver has 675,000 people and the count there is 2,200 homeless. We have an extraordinary problem here, disproportionate to our size. You work with the provincial government, which is what we’re doing, and we’re doing it in a significant way. There’s 518 units of supportive and affordable housing, either under construction or promised by the province. That will make a huge dent.

Homelessness is most visible downtown, but merchants I spoke with say business is good.

Since I came here in 1979, I can measure the downtown activity by parking. It’s a heckuva lot harder to park here today than it was five years ago, 10 years ago or 15 years ago … It’s a good problem to have.

Nanaimo created a Health and Housing Task Force last May. Is it working?

The problem didn’t happen overnight. I know how painful it is. I get just as frustrated as everybody else … We’re working hard with the provincial government and BC Housing to secure the units. But the housing, in and of itself — if it isn’t provided with supports, if we don’t see dry housing built, if we don’t see mental health institutions like Riverview reopened — is not going to solve the problem.

The province has a modular housing strategy to build supportive housing. Are you making land available?

In fairness to Rich Coleman [Liberal MLA, previously minister responsible for Housing] that was his constant complaint. I’ll build it, he said, but the municipalities never want to face the political flak for the rezoning or the provision of the land or whatever. Nanaimo has taken a different approach. We’re working with BC Housing — and all of us are aware it’s going to be a political nightmare — but we’re prepared to do it because it’s not going to go away.

Are you providing land then?

There are only so many things one can say in an interview. We provided the land for the Labieux site … That’s leased City land.

City Council turned down a request for $70,000 to fund five addiction treatment beds at the John Howard Society of British Columbia Vancouver Island Therapeutic Community. Why?

Damn right we did, and why shouldn’t we? If we start funding treatment addiction beds, the province doesn’t have to fund five beds and will happily say you’re solving your own problem, why would we care? … I’m not going to commit or support this city committing to fulfilling the responsibilities of the provincial or federal governments.

Staff losses at City Hall numbered 35 during the last council’s tenure, including a number of senior people. How do you repair that?

Problems around recruitment face every municipal government in the province, but ours was particularly bad because so many people were severed who should never have been severed. People left, were driven out, frustrated, retired early, whatever. To recover that reputation you can only do it by doing what we’ve done: make good governance a priority. To get the message out that we’re not in the headlines anymore for bad reasons.

Has having the Island recognized by Ottawa as a Foreign Trade Zone helped investment?

That helps us very much. In the longer haul, that will be a major beneficiary of its port status as goods continue to be shipped around the world. If the government does the right thing with the E&N Railway, I can see us moving quite easily into a situation where ships will arrive in Alberni, load onto rail, come to Nanaimo and barge to Vancouver. There is very little land left in the Lower Mainland and the workers who work there can’t afford the housing. That is a driver and there are tremendous opportunities.

A fast foot-passenger ferry between Nanaimo and Vancouver has been talked about, seemingly, forever. Is it going to happen?

I think, in fairness, it’s basically just down to financing. I’ve worked with the group [Island Ferry Service] before as MLA and continue to work with them. Without question, it is the one project in town that has almost universal appeal.

What’s the plan for the 26-acre downtown waterfront area at 1 Port Drive, that could be ground zero for Nanaimo’s future?

We haven’t announced it yet. We’re working on it. It hasn’t come to council yet. It’s an amazing piece of waterfront right in the downtown core. Like any group looking at what will be a very important project, we want to do it right. You don’t want to screw it up. The one thing this community agreed on is we don’t want an event centre there.

Has your 10-year-property tax exemption created investment?

It’s working. Most of us campaigned on the numbers that we need at least 5,000 more people in the downtown core and there have been several announcements of projects that put us on track to do that. In a world where climate change is the issue, we want densification in our downtown core … Look at the size of this city geographically (91.3 square kilometres compared to Victoria’s 19.47 and Vancouver’s 114). I’ve said over and over again, the problem with Nanaimo is we’ve got too much geography and not enough citizens.

The Port Authority in Nanaimo is now off-loading container ships of cars. I hear there are 120 new jobs. Is it a game changer?

Mercedes-Benz. It’s huge. Formerly those cars would have offloaded in Vancouver. Expensive, delays in getting unloaded, or, alternatively, they’d be shipped across Canada. Now you bring them around Cape Horn, drop them in Nanaimo, they get cleaned up here – you’ve got to clean them up after a sea voyage – then you barge them to Vancouver and they go to the dealerships.

How much has the forestry industry’s decline hurt Nanaimo?

There’s a horrible strike on right now that’s impacting families directly and indirectly. If this was 30 years ago it would have been pneumonia. Now it’s a cold. The theme of the story is Nanaimo ain’t what it used to be. That presents challenges for people who have been here for a long time. They remember a quieter, sleepier and more recognizable community. For many of them, a more comfortable community. But we’re living in the 21st century.

This article is from the February/March 2020 issue of Douglas.