While many do not realize it, here in the Comox Valley we are in a constant economic struggle. It is worldwide and it is a struggle for wealth – and specifically, a struggle to attract for a certain type of person I will refer to as the portable professional.
Just what is a portable professional, you might ask? Well, they come in all shapes and sizes, but the unifying factor is that they can create wealth anywhere, and their wealth creation mechanism isn’t necessarily reliant on a single resource, natural element, or specific location. An example of a portable professional is a video game developer. They sell their games online and through various retail outlets which they do not typically own or operate. They need an internet connection, electricity and basic amenities to power, connect and house their computer, and then they generate wealth. Another example would be a design specialist who develops detailed drawings of a certain widget or type of widget. They don’t necessarily have to be located where the widgets are made, and again, require the same basic amenities as the video game programmer.
The fact that these portable professionals aren’t linked to a specific natural resource is a key factor to the Comox Valley. Traditionally, our wealth has been derived from forestry, mining and fishing. However, there is a finite amount of land for trees to grow on, and thus a finite amount of people who can operate in that industry. Mining is similar, with a finite and limited resource, and thus little room for expansion in the true long term. However, those individuals who generate wealth by using their education, experience and intellect have no such limiting factors, and the Comox Valley can support an almost infinite number of these type of wealth earners.
The main question is, how do we attract these portable professionals? What do they look for in terms of lifestyle, amenities, natural surroundings and culture?
Fortunately, we have some key ingredients here in the Comox Valley. We have incredible natural surroundings. We have a ski hill, marinas, a fresh water lake, a large provincial park and we are on the ocean. These are factors that we have by accident, but we need to make the protection of them a priority. What many people may not be aware of, or may have forgotten, is that the majority of the forested mountain sides that surround our community are privately owned, and thus not protected. If we wish to maintain the competitive advantage our natural surroundings bring us, we need to be prepared to fight to keep them.
The other aspects of the equation; lifestyle, amenities and culture, are all things we can directly influence. Some concrete examples of communities pursuing projects that will attract portable professionals are places like White Plains, New York – population 56,853. The municipal government conducted focus groups with young professionals and determined that they chose White Plains over other local centres because of the nightlife, restaurants, family activities, diversity and proximity to Manhattan. In an effort to emphasize their City’s profile, the municipal government recently introduced bike lanes, Zip cars (a car share service) and approved a temporary closure of a main street for an outdoor yoga event.
How does the Comox Valley compare? Well, it is an easy float plane trip to Vancouver, and we are starting to see some bike lanes. We’ve had a couple of Car Free Sundays, and our nightlife vibrant. If we are to take this war for the portable professional seriously, and attempt to grow this most expandable and sustainable sector of our economy, we need to work collectively to mold the built environment of the Comox Valley into a place these people want to live.
Physically, this will mean bike lanes, improved transit, a pedestrian only 5th Street, a bike bridge, a water front trail linking Comox to Union Bay; the list goes on. Cultural amenities like increased arts, music, theatre. Sports amenities like a multiplex with adequate seating and several ice surfaces. Conference amenities like a 1,000 person room that is attractive and in a central location. A community that works together with a shared focus at all levels – with all of the various municipal governments cooperating and sharing services where possible.
Our housing will have to be more urban, and more attractive to this younger generation of adventurers. They will be comfortable with a smaller footprint, because they go out of their home to recreate and socialize. They look for a place they can walk to work, to school and to the shops. Our planning and development will have to focus on this.
Is this a big vision? Yes – because if you consider the fact that you will generally only ever achieve half of your vision, where we currently have our collective vision set won’t get us very far. We need a big vision in the Comox Valley to hope to achieve economic sustainability and a balance between our natural environment and prosperity.