The Comox Valley: Land of Plenty

Comox, in the language of the region’s indigenous inhabitants, means “plenty.” That’s exactly what 19th-century pioneers would have found when they arrived in the Comox Valley, a place where they could fall Douglas firs with butt-ends bigger than buses, dig trainloads of coal from the ground, render forests into fertile farmland, and fill boats with fish. These days, newcomers to the area are more interested in real estate and recreation than the rough hewn world of raw resources.

Down at Thomson Bros. Lumber Co. Ltd., the air is filled with the din of spinning blades and the scent of freshly cut lumber as Joe Thomson pulls fir one-by-fours from the green chain at his small Comox Valley sawmill.

In 1966, on the heels of his 19th birthday, Thomson left a $2.25-an-hour union job at Field Sawmills, purchased 2½ acres with a house next to Cumberland Road for $3,500, and built a mill. With its wood-sided walls, hand-painted sign, and muddy yard, the mill seems almost anachronistic. Thomson, with his hands-on knowledge of sawmilling and practical business savvy, also seems from a different time, a vestige of the Comox Valley’s working class roots. Field Sawmill, where Thomson learned to work at a young age, shut in 2005 after more than 50 years of operation. Thomson Bros. keeps plugging away, cranking out a million board feet of lumber per year.

“What’s the key to my longevity? Stupidity I guess,” he says with a laugh. “We’re small. We’ve managed to adapt to the lumber market and tweak our production, basically for the regular guy building something at home.”

While things may not have changed much at Thomson Bros., the community around his operation certainly has. There is a slate of development projects on the books fuelled by retirees pondering the purchase of a townhouse on the golf green, or urban escapees cashing out of the city and transforming century-old Cumberland miner’s shacks into abodes fit for Home and Garden magazine.

Late last year, the Comox Valley Regional District gave third reading to a rezoning for Victoria-based Kensington Island Properties to develop 27 holes of golf, a 450-unit seniors community, 1,100 homes, and a commercial marina on a 342-hectare chunk of land, effectively transforming the idle old coal port of Union Bay into a waterfront bustle of retirees and yacht clubbers. Vancouver’s Trilogy Properties Corp., founded by former Intrawest developer John Evans, has an option to buy 310 hectares in Cumberland and has been doggedly jumping through the zoning hoops for a commercial and residential project that could double the size of the village to more than 5,000 residents. The still-speculative 810-hectare Sage Hills Development is being spearheaded by Independent Academies Inc. It includes plans for a 500-student, kindergarten-to-Grade-12 sports academy, and 3,500 housing units. Wedged between the boundaries of Courtenay and Comox, the Longlands Project proposes to wrap 1,000 units of residential, hotel, and seniors-oriented housing, as well as 145,000 square feet of commercial space, around the Longlands golf course.

And recently, Crown Isle Resort and Golf Community, which touched off the real estate boom more than a decade ago, got the green light for 1.3 million square feet of commercial space with Costco as the anchor tenant. Although it’s too early to uncork the champagne on these projects, they’re enough to keep politicians, planners, and residents awake at night pondering the future.

The Comox Valley is a bit of a curious geographic and political anomaly. It feels less like a valley than a rolling tapestry of forest and farmland stretching from the mountains to the sea and creased by rivers. Known collectively as the Comox Valley, it’s comprised of three separate municipalities — the three Cs of Courtenay, Comox, and Cumberland — and a handful of rural settlements strung along 50 kilometres of the east coast of Vancouver Island, from Fanny Bay north to the Oyster River, with a total population approaching 65,000.

The region’s economy was founded in the mid 19th-century on fishing, logging, and mining, but it lacked the formidable pulp mill or large sawmill around which Campbell River and Gold River once prospered. This lack of dependence on a single resource employer has also been the Comox Valley’s blessing, allowing a mix of agriculture, tourism, small manufacturing, and grassroots businesses to at least survive, if not thrive. That said, local job statistics don’t paint a spectacular picture; the Valley’s top five employers are the Canadian Forces Base at Comox, School District 71, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Mt. Washington Alpine Resort, and North Island College.

Not that long ago, the Comox Valley felt relatively isolated, either a meandering journey up the old Island Highway or an infrequent flight from Vancouver to an improvised Atco trailer that served as the civilian airport. In 2000, the Inland Island Highway was completed; however, in some ways, it was a four-lane highway that led, well, to nowhere. When WestJet started direct flights from Calgary in 2001, the eyes of oil-rich Albertans were opened in a big way to Comox Valley real estate. In 2004, after the new international airport terminal opened, it seemed real estate agents were multiplying overnight.

In 2001, the airport welcomed 131,940 passengers; in 2008, arrivals had jumped to 304,069. It’s not hard to understand what’s driving the airport traffic and development interest — with a ski resort a mere 40-minute drive from year-round golfing, a thriving arts and cultural scene, and local cheeses and blueberry wines on the menu at restaurants, the Comox Valley boasts an enviable résumé.

Real estate with fire sale prices relative to Vancouver and Victoria added to the appeal, and house prices are still cheap by comparison. A single-family house that sold for $143,000 in 2001 hit $354,307 seven years later. New housing starts peaked at 517 units at the crest of the boom in 2008, up 300 per cent from the beginning of the decade, but construction activity dropped to 245 starts last year. A look at demographics reveals more about the consumers propelling the boom. In B.C., 34 per cent of the population is older than 50 years compared to 41 per cent in the Comox Valley.

Victoria-born Edd Moyes, former VP of Oak Bay Marine Group, is one of those 50-plus guys. He moved up Island 11 years ago to head up real estate sales at Crown Isle. The vision of Ron Coulson, who made a fortune logging before turning to real estate, Crown Isle was the valley’s first major golf subdivision. Yet when Moyes arrived in the late 1990s to assume the general manager’s position, the economy and real estate were sluggish. That was about to change. Moyes remembers the day in 2001 when a WestJet executive checked into Crown Isle prior to announcing the airline’s arrival in the valley.

“I knew that WestJet was going to open this place to the world. It launched us into a totally different market,” says Moyes.

His tenure at Crown Isle lasted four years before he was lured back to Victoria to help establish the Church and State winery in Brentwood Bay. His wife Lisa and two young kids didn’t want to leave. Moyes commuted until the Black Fin, an established pub on the Comox waterfront in need of new energy, came up for sale in 2004. Moyes pounced on it and gave the place a quick $225,000 facelift.Business has been strong ever since thanks largely to a stable clientele of Comox retirees, not to mention Albertans.

There’s no denying the growing influence of Alberta money, whether it’s being spent by developers or refugees from prairie winters. The Longlands project, backed by Calgary money, is modelled on Joe Van Belleghem’s Dockside Green and would be the Valley’s first LEED platinum-certified project. With its plans for recycling waste water, a network of protected greenways, and energy-efficient buildings, Longlands looks and sounds impressive, but it’s also counting on buyers being willing to pay a premium for LEED design and cooperation from local planners and engineers in a market unfamiliar with this style of development.

“The Comox Valley is a very environmentally conscious community but we are battling the perception locally that the Longlands project will cripple itself financially by pursuing a LEED platinum standard,” says Paul de Greef, a Victoria landscape architect and spokesman for Longlands. If the project gets regional approval, construction could begin as early as 2011. “But we’re confident in the work we’ve done so far.”

For many years Roger McKinnon, a Nanaimo businessman and former vice-president of the Vancouver Island Real Estate Board, knew about the Comox Valley’s potential but only as a distant observer. In 2004, while wrapping up a one-day, $36.5-million real estate sales bonanza for Bear Mountain’s Westin Hotel, McKinnon learned of a piece of prime downtown property adjacent to a Courtenay landmark, the Old House restaurant. He quickly made his play and went to work. Last year, McKinnon and partner Rob Fuller opened phase two of the Old House Village, a $20-million quarter-ownership hotel set on 3½ acres with 79 rooms and a day spa. McKinnon calls the Comox Valley the only true four-season destination on Vancouver Island.

“If you want, you can golf and ski on the same spring day, and there are great restaurants and wineries starting to open up here,” says McKinnon, whose marketing efforts focus mostly on Victoria, which accounts for more than 50 per cent of Old House Village clientele.

Capitalizing on recreation, gastronomy, and agritourism is important for hoteliers like McKinnon. According to the Comox Valley Economic Development Society, nearly 450 farms contribute $30 million annually to the local economy. The region is rich. From Natural Pastures cheeses to the Shelter Point whiskey distillery, the kind of culinary tourism that would have been fantasy a decade ago is now a reality. Chef Kathy Jerritt, 34, is banking on it. In the spring of 2009, she launched a cooking school and special events kitchen called Tria Culinary Studios, a joint venture with Salt Spring Island transplants Marla Limousin and George Ehrler, owners of Nature’s Way Farm and Blue Moon Estate Winery.

“I have travelled a lot and that’s how I chose to educate myself about food. But you know, after living here for 16 years, I realized the Comox Valley is hard to beat from a cook’s perspective,” Jerritt says. “You have the ocean, wild foods, and all the farms. There’s even a place down in Fanny Bay growing citrus fruits.”

Sport and recreation opportunities also give locals something to be smug about. Up at Mount Washington, it’s been a United Nations of winter sports. The resort has leveraged its proximity to the 2010 Olympics to become the preferred training facility for more than a dozen international teams. It’s an effort that Don Sharpe, the resort’s director of business services, hopes will put the mountain on the world map and “give us more credibility.”

While snow sports and culinary tourism look good on glossy brochures, other business interests are seeking far less glamorous stuff under the ground. Though the last coal mine on which Cumberland was founded closed more than 50 years ago, Compliance Energy Corp. is hoping to reopen a dusty chapter in the Comox Valley’s industrial age history. In a joint venture with Japan’s Itochu Corporation and Korea-based LG International, Compliance hopes to tap the Raven coal deposit in the hills above Baynes Sound south of the Comox Valley, much of it the high-value metallurgical variety used in making steel.

Interest is intense from both supporters and detractors concerned about the environmental impact. More than 300 people showed up to a public information meeting last November at a Fanny Bay hall, out of which the watchdog group Coalwatch Comox Valley was formed. The coal project is only beginning to jump through environmental assessment hoops, but Compliance CEO John Tapics says if approvals fall into place, operations could start as early as 2012 with a target production rate of 1.5 million tonnes per year.

“We estimate that there would be 200 full-time jobs at the mine site and another 300 to 500 spinoff jobs,” Tapics says, from his office in Vancouver.

In the Comox Valley, environmental and social activism can be a blood sport. Citizens feel a strong attachment to place. Big projects, whether the activity is coal mining or swinging golf clubs, tend to be met with a vocal response. Some people still lament the fact that Superstore was allowed to build on prime agricultural land near the Courtenay Estuary — and that was more than 15 years ago. In 1999, when Wal Mart approached Courtenay council with a rezoning application, it precipitated a four-night marathon of public hearings during which more than 80 per cent of the 276 speakers opposed the project. In the end, council approved Wal Mart and, since 2001, it has been a 105,000-square-foot big box fixture on the strip at the south end of Courtenay.

In Cumberland, many citizens of that pugnacious little heritage mining town are seething over their council’s willingness to accommodate the real estate ambitions of Vancouver’s Trilogy, which wants to build houses on land that was zoned commercial and working forest in the official community plan. Kate Greening, a tenacious critic of the development, was elected to council in 2008 and says the firm’s proposal, currently at third reading, would condemn Cumberland to a future of suburban sprawl, expensive to service and not in keeping with the village’s character.

“At least when we do our next OCP [official community plan], it will be cheap. It will be one line and it will say ‘whatever the developer wants to do,’” Greening says facetiously.

The upshot is that the Comox Valley, not unlike any place undergoing boom times, is experiencing some mid-life aches and pains. The “three Cs,” with borders often as ambiguous as the line between Colwood and Langford, interspaced with rural areas, has made growth management unwieldy.

Power struggles between the municipalities and between rural and urban power bases occasionally turn local politics into a circus act. Over the years, debates on the merits of amalgamating the three cities have flared and fizzled. In the next two decades, 20,000 new citizens are expected to put down roots in the valley. With growth in mind, back in 2008, then community services minister Ida Chong mandated the creation of the Comox Valley Regional District (formed by the three Cs and three adjacent rural areas that were calved off from the larger and mostly rural Comox-Strathcona Regional District), with strict orders to develop a regional growth strategy. The CVRD hired Toronto-based Urban Strategies Inc. to guide the planning process, underway for nearly two years with the aim of promoting “a healthy and sustainable region.”

Bold motherhood statements aside, citizens and savvy developers alike know that plans come and plans go, many of them fading on the shelf before the ink has dried. Dale Bishop, a local planning consultant, says with all the projects clambering to break ground, the Comox Valley desperately needs a coherent vision, but he has limited confidence in the regional growth strategy.

“How the hell will you enforce a plan in five years when nobody can remember the consultants and the [CVRD] board has changed,” Bishop says. “I’ll bet if you walked down Fifth Street and asked 10 people about the regional growth strategy, not one of them would know what you’re talking about.”

Ex-Victoria resident and entrepreneur Edd Moyes doesn’t lose too much sleep over grandiose plans; for him, any business is good business. With every new baby boomer inching toward retirement that sidles up to his bar at the Black Fin or Albertan cruising rural roads looking for property, he sees opportunity.

“I think if we build it, people are going to want to come here,” Moyes says. “I really think the Comox Valley is just starting to reach its potential.”

Back at the Thomson Bros. mill, Joe Thomson leans on the counter of the tiny sales office. Occasionally a vehicle pulls into the lot, and someone gets out and sorts through stacks of lumber. Thomson is a practical guy and has practical views around what anchors an economy. For him, it’s generally people who have their hands on a
saw, fishing net, drill, or farm tractor, or by those who manufacture raw resources into other products. Golf course communities and retirement villages don’t exactly get him excited.

“What are we going to do, create another Lower Mainland suburbia full of old duffers playing golf?” he says, acutely aware that, in a decade or so, he’ll be an old duffer.