To her parents’ horror, Cathy Robertson moved to the Cowichan Valley about 20 years ago to be closer to them after they retired to the area. Her parents believed she would never find a rewarding career there. Fast forward two decades, and Robertson is now overseeing Community Futures Cowichan, a non-profit community business financing organization, as General Manager.
At the 2017 State of the Island Economic Summit, Robertson told the above story while participating in a panel discussion about the Cowichan Valley’s changing economy. Joining her were Alana Elliott, President of Libre Naturals; Amy Melmock, Economic Development Officer with the Cowichan Valley Regional District; Julie Scurr, President of the Duncan Cowichan Chamber of Commerce; Caroll Taiji, Director of Strategy with Taiji Brand Group; and Peter Van Dongen, Regional Marketing Manager with MNP LLP.
What has changed?
Two decades ago, panelists recalled a depressed, resource-dependent region with lots of vacant properties and closed storefronts. Since then, the Valley has experienced economic diversification, increased investment from large corporations, and growth in the number of value-added businesses. Panelists have also watched the Valley become a tourist destination for foodies and outdoor enthusiasts.
How did this happen?
Collaboration was key to the Valley’s economic growth, all panelists agree. For example, Elliott remembers the Duncan Farmers Market of 20 years ago consisting of only five vendors because of arguing factions. It is now one of the largest in BC. They also credited a few pioneers willing to make an initial investment, and a younger population moving in for the lifestyle and started innovative businesses.
Panelists identified several challenges to work on going forward. The region struggles to find workers, especially in the retail sector, and affordable housing is still in short supply. Ensuring it is easier for companies to set up shop in the area is important, as is continuing to build relationships with First Nations communities to ensure they are able to fully engage in the economy. The CVRD is developing Cowichan 2050, a regionally coordinated approach to respond to the changing demographics and economy.