The Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet — number five on TripAdvisor's list of the best things to do in British Columbia — is one of more than 130 projects partially funded by the Island Coastal Economic Trust

Island Coastal Economic Trust celebrating 10 years of giving away $50 million

Vancouver Island community treasure chest nearly empty and seeking a refill after 10 years of sparking economic development

ICE T is not some rapper recently added to the cast of The Voice

Neither is it the new summer cold drink special at Starbucks, nor the chillest new member of the Avengers big screen team.

Rather ICE T — the Island Coastal Economic Trust — is a community treasure chest that has quietly sparked more than a quarter-billion dollars in investment on Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast in the past decade.

And it’s time may soon be coming to a close.

A $50 million fund created by the B.C. government in 2006, ICET essentially gives away money to community projects it believes will generate further investment, employment and economic growth. Thus far, it has used $48.6 million in seed money to leverage an additional $224.5 million in public and private investment to enable 134 projects in 52 local communities north of the Malahat.

The trust marked its 10th anniversary June 16 with a celebration at the Deep Bay Marine Field Station near Courtenay with a feeling of satisfaction that it has helped communities grow, learn and succeed.

“The credit goes to all the communities and people who brought great ideas,” ICET chairman Phil Kent said. “There are so many good ideas in the community and this was a way to catalyze it.”

What made ICET different from previous government grants programs was its grassroots nature. Instead of putting the $50 million into the hands of Victoria bureaucrats to distribute, the province turned it over to a coalition of community leaders living and working within the region.

Community groups and local governments were encouraged to apply for funding then put through a tough application process where they had to prove their projects could create employment and bring sustainable economic benefits to the region. If they made a good case, ICET would then pledge funds tied to the amount of money proponents could gather from other sources.

A good recent example would be the new suspension bridge at Elk Falls Provincial Park near Campbell River.

The local Rotary Club decided it would be a great idea to build a bridge hanging 60 metres above the canyon and attract new visitors to what BC Parks considered an under-utilized asset.

Working with ICET to help make it happen, Rotary added the resources of BC Hydro, BC Parks, and the West Coast Community Adjustment program to its own building and fundraising acumen to give birth to a new $2.7 million Vancouver Island attraction.

The park traditionally attracted about 70,000 visitors annually. In the first eight months after the bridge opened, it drew 195,000.

“You attract that many visitors and there will be a spin-off,” Kent said.

Unlike provincial government, ICET wasn’t about standing at arms-length as applicants nervously awaited the results of their applications. Instead, the trust provided plenty of feedback and helped communities and non-profits learn where their project’s shortcomings were. The process helped the applicants develop and build capacity.

“Typically with the government it’s like entering a lottery and you never get any feedback,” Kent said.

By setting a goal that each project would move forward with at least 25 per cent non-government money, it also taught how important it is to collaborate and build ties within and between communities.

Part of the fund’s mandate was to focus on projects that would benefit the entire region.

Some of those projects focused on tangible amenities: the Nanaimo Airport expansion, the Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet, the Deep Bay harbour expansion and the restoration of Shawnigan Lake’s historic Kinsol Trestle are examples.

Other projects were more about adding to the knowledge base: these include the Vancouver Island Economic Summit, a variety of community economic development reports, a regional marketing plan for boating tourism, an agricultural show, a youth retention study.

And communities are reaping the benefits. Zoran Knezevic, CEO of the Port Alberni Port Authority said the ICET-assisted Fisherman’s Harbour project there has been nothing short of transformative for the community.

“We are seeing the attraction of scheduled seaplane service, renaissance of our commercial marine sector and an excitement in the community for a vibrant and dynamic future of our waterfront,” he said.

The list of projects is extensive and covers the entire map. The town squares in Chemainus and Lake Cowichan, the Vancouver Island Mountain Centre on Mt. Washington, Port Hardy’s Quatse Salmon Interpretive Centre, the Oceanside Initiatives Business Attraction strategy — one would be hard-pressed to name a community north of the Capital Regional District that the trust has failed to touch.

“The way the board looked at it is in a regionally significant way,” Kent said. “ There was no criteria that we were going to fund a project in every community, but in essence that’s what happened.”

And the process got individual communities working together and transfering knowledge, helping feed a growing wave of regional thinking across the region.

“Absolutely,” Kent said. “The rising tide floats all boats.”

Most recently, ICET has focused the majority of its investment in the tourism sector — 74 per cent in 2014/15. Tourism has also been the biggest beneficiary over its existence, at 43 per cent, with transportation second at 36 per cent, followed by aquaculture (7), economic development (5), forestry (3) and small business (3).

suspension bridgeBut it has also recently put a fair amount of emphasis on projects aimed at creating economic readiness plans in smaller, more remote communities that typically don’t have resources to develop those on their own.

“It has been very challenging for small communities to access economic development funding from senior levels of government. Funding programs…target larger projects or sectors which may not exist in smaller communities or do not align with their priorities,” the trust’s annual report for 2015 reads.

“The result is that small communities have been increasingly shut out of public economic development funding opportunities and are challenged to develop the economic initiatives and amenities required to attract new residents and investment.”

The amount of funding ICET has been able to leverage has dropped off significantly during the past five years, only surpassing $3 per $1 invested once in that span, while averaging $4.6 over its entire existence. Kent feels the smaller numbers could be due to fewer higher government grant programs to tap and an ICET focus on smaller projects as its resources dwindle.

But the flip side of that is that the rate of non-government funding being leveraged continues to grow.

The fund cost just under $480,000 to administrate last year. It’s operation averages 15% of funds disbursed annually.

Investment recapitalization has made the trust grow beyond its initial $50 million, but it has nearly run its course.

There is $7.6 million left, enough to likely keep it operating until some time in 2018. Kent, who is also the mayor of Duncan, said the province never intended it to be renewed, but that hasn’t prevented its supporters from lobbying the Liberals to change their minds.

As far as he’s concerned, it has set a new standard for community grant program effectiveness.

“It’s a challenge because the legislation said it was a one-shot deal,” he said. “The dividends back to the province have been great. They haven’t closed the door, but we’ve got to make a strong case.”

Dallas Smith, President of the Nanwakolas Council and an ICET director, said the province and ICET need to work together to ensure communities and First Nations continue to have access to what it offers.

“It’s important for this government to remember how challenging the Island economy was when we first started, and how far we have come,” he said.

Kent agreed.

“The province’s foresight in creating ICET and supporting this model of direct investment is why we’ve been successful, and for that, we’re deeply grateful,” he said.

“This is ground-up economic development and it works.”

 

Funding by regional district since inception

Nanaimo 27%

Mount Waddington 17%

Alberni-Clayoquot 13%

Powell River 11%

Cowichan Valley 9%

Strathcona 8%

Multiple districts 6%

Comox Valley 6%

Sunshine Coast 3%

— ICET annual report 2014/15

 

Follow me on Twitter @JohnMcKinleyBP

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