2020 has been a challenging year for Port Alberni—from a forestry strike to a worldwide pandemic to a million-dollar oil spill at a city-owned historic site.
But despite the challenges, Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions said she feels confident about the future of the city and the opportunities that the next few years have in store.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was declared in mid-March, and as a community, Minions said that Port Alberni “responded very well” to the pandemic.
She praised the COVID-19 Response team, made up of a few different organizations—including the Salvation Army, Bread of Life, Canadian Mental Health Association, Port Alberni Shelter Society and Kuu-us Crisis Line Society—which teamed up to start providing daily meal services and hampers for the community’s homeless and low income residents.
“We saw our community adjust very quickly. We saw our community come together and support people who needed support,” said Minions. “How much money was raised was really incredible, and I think it speaks to the type of community that Port Alberni is.”
The pandemic also saw the city partnering with the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District (ACRD) for emergency preparedness and emergency response.
“COVID really pushed us to work together in a new way,” said Minions. “I think that we’re going to see long-lasting relationships built out of COVID that will really benefit the city and the regional district in how we work together moving forward.”
The City of Port Alberni was completing its budget for the year, with a proposed tax increase of more than four percent, when the pandemic was declared in mid-March.
“Really quickly the city responded and recognized that there was a financial challenge ahead and completely changed our budget in a matter of a few days, to pare down everything that we possibly could,” said Minions.
Council cut more than $800,000 from the 2020 financial plan, readjusting for a tax increase of around one percent.
“Which was one of the lower increases on Vancouver Island,” added Minions.
Although a number of projects were cut from the budget, Minions said that the city is still working on a few of their strategic plans behind the scenes. The city is still moving forward on a waterfront pathway that will connect Harbour Quay and Victoria Quay, for example. Minions described the Quay to Quay path as a “cornerstone project” for this council.
“Although we couldn’t invest financially in it this year because of COVID, we have invested significantly in it with staff time and planning,” she said. “That project has gone from a concept to a real plan that we’ll soon be taking to public engagement. That’s been one of the biggest focuses this year for sure.”
In September, council submitted an application for $2.5 million in grant funding for the Quay to Quay pathway, and Minions said the city has “a strong chance of being successful” in that grant.
Another large project in council’s strategic plan was the redevelopment of Third Avenue, but the city has paused this project in response to public feedback.
“We heard loud and clear that public safety was a top priority before we invested in beautification and streetscape changes,” said Minions.
Instead, the city has put its efforts into combatting “problem” housing—such as the Port Pub, Harbourview Apartments and Wintergreen Apartments—and putting together a public safety building on Third Avenue that will open in the new year.
Housing and homelessness were two of the biggest themes of 2020 in Port Alberni, with an occupy movement taking place outside of Port Alberni’s shelter at the end of October.
As a result of the protest, BC Housing committed to a third-party review of the Port Alberni Shelter Society.
In the meantime, Minions said the city has been working on “all aspects” of housing in the community.
“We’ve been working with non-profits on a number of affordable and supportive housing applications that are going to the provincial and federal governments,” she said. “The city has supported those applications with planning and donations of land, in some situations.”
A few of these projects are already underway, she explained. The Port Alberni Low Energy Housing Society, for example, began construction of some affordable rental units back in September. A new apartment complex on the old high school grounds on Burde Street has opened more than 140 new rental units, and a seniors facility is currently in the works on the same site.
Along with supporting the creation of new housing, Minions said that council has also spent the last year focusing on property sales and a “strategic review” of all the land that the city owns.
“We’re looking at what land do we own that is not strategic for us to keep long-term—that doesn’t have recreation value, that doesn’t have development potential further than what it is today—and starting to capitalize on some of that land,” said Minions.
Through rezoning, or just putting property on the market, Minions said the city has been able to generate “quite a decent amount” of revenue through this land.
“That revenue that we’re generating is going to help us achieve our strategic goals without having to increase taxes,” she said.
Minions pointed to the city’s new food hub facility as one of the biggest success stories of the year.
The city and Port Alberni Port Authority (PAPA) received provincial funding for a food hub on the city’s waterfront back in 2019, and renovations began in earnest. In July, the Food Hub opened to a few “anchor” tenants who process seafood.
“It was a fantastic partnership that got underway super quickly and is now complete with tenants in it,” said Minions. “It’s an example of what we can do when we partner with different agencies, and when we look to support small businesses. What I really love about it is that it’s very much focused around supporting small businesses and putting the pieces that we need in place to help them grow into larger businesses over time.”
She sees the food hub as an “anchor sector” of Port Alberni’s economy—and a good way of diversifying the city’s economy.
In 2020, the city faced the potential loss of two of its tourist attractions, with the Alberni Aquarium and McLean Mill.
In early March, the former aquarium board announced that fundraising efforts had not been enough to sustain the organization into 2020. Since that announcement, a new non-profit Alberni Aquarium Assocation has taken over, but the aquarium is still struggling in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Minions explained that the city has given the aquarium a few months of rent relief, and city staff is also working with the organization from a planning perspective on making the business a viable one.
“I’m really optimistic that the aquarium—with the leadership that they have and the conversation that they’ve started in the community—is going to be successful,” said Minions.
The city has faced a number of challenges with McLean Mill this year, from a million-dollar oil spill to a compliance notice from the Agricultural Land Commission. However, Minions said this is not unlike any other year at McLean Mill.
“There’s always a challenge at McLean Mill, the entire time it’s been in existence,” she said. “The mill has survived through many challenges before, and I am optimistic that we are on the right path with it, but that doesn’t make things like oil spills and dam problems any easier to deal with from a budget perspective.”
This year, the Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce took over business operations at McLean Mill, and Minions said she is “very confident” with the business plan they have for the site.
“I think we’ve got the right people in place to deal with the business end of this operation,” she said. “We are going to continue to be challenged by some of the environmental issues at that site and the regulatory issues around that. Unfortunately it’s just the situation that we’re in. It’s not going to be easy or cheap for us to address over time.”
One of the biggest changes for Port Alberni in 2020 came with the provincial election, as long-time Mid Island-Pacific Rim MLA Scott Fraser announced that he would not be seeking re-election. Fraser has served as an MLA in B.C. since 2005.
Instead, former Tofino mayor Josie Osborne stepped up to run as an NDP candidate in the election and won with 58 percent of the popular vote.
Minions admitted that working with the provincial government will be different without Fraser.
“It’s hard to lose someone who has been such a part of this community for a long time and knew his role very well,” she said. “But I’m certainly excited to work with Josie because I know Josie really well—she’s a friend of mine. It’s nice to work with someone that you already have a pre-existing relationship with. She knows our community, she’s really familiar with the challenges and opportunities that we have here and I think she’s going to be a fantastic addition to the community.”