Lake Cowichan Mayor Ross Forrest told a Lake Cowichan business crowd last week that steering the community towards a new future has been exciting.
First elected in 2008, Forrest said revitalization has been a challenge for all concerned.
“Our town was getting pretty run down in those days. It started with the closures of the mills and the forest industry. We had to make some changes in our community. Something you might not be aware of is that The Community Charter does not allow municipalities to assist individual businesses.”
Council had to prioritize, Forrest said.
“What do you do first? If you want to sell your house, you fix it up. If you want to sell your business, you spruce it up. Well, we did the same. The simplest thing we could do was add value and make Lake Cowichan a better place, a more attractive place.
“I think over the past five or six years, those efforts are starting to show. Eight, nine, or 10 years ago, you couldn’t sell your property around here. We understand that it’s taxpayers’ money that we did a lot of this work with but it was an investment in all of our properties. Anybody that has a property in this town now has way more equity in it.
“That’s the decision we made. I’ve had really great councils to work with. It’s not always easy making those tough decisions. Believe me, we hear the complaints from people if they don’t like something.
“I hear all the time that we’re spending money on gardeners, looking after our medians or our parks. [People] think it’s a waste of money, but we look at it as a positive investment for the community.”
Partnership is really helpful when it comes to finding money to do these things so they’re not all paid for by local taxpayers, he explained.
“The town always tries to leverage partners in just about every project that we do. We’ve had great partners to work with. We really do think that it’s paying off. Now, we’re seeing more and more private investors coming here. Look around. The jobs in our community, the investments have been made. Whether it’s South Shore Cabinetry or The Riverside Inn or some of these businesses in town. They have made investment in our town.”
It all started with work on Darnell Road in 2010.
“I don’t believe Tim Hortons would have located there if Darnell Road looked like it has in 2009,” Forrest said. “That road had to be done. We did it in an environmental, green way. We know every neighbourhood in our town needed investment but before you can attract people to move to your community, you’ve got to build up your business sector and put a little vibrancy into your downtown. The road off of Darnell includes the Royal Bank, the liquor store, Country Grocer. We knew that when tourists were coming to our town, that was one of the places, for sure, that they would be stopping. They’d see it.”
Next up was the main street, done in 2012, again with partners.
“The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure paid for the paving, which was over $2 million, and at that time, council had to make a choice.”
No one on council wanted to dig up a freshly paved road to make changes, so revitalization and beautification of the main street went ahead, adding beauty and controlling traffic.
He also talked about revitalizing the area that now houses the library and town square.
“Some people don’t like that we donated that land to the library. We looked at it as a good investment. I think we have far more social value from our library than we did having a $100,000 empty lot sitting there. It’s all about adding value to the community.”
The town square is now a source of pride, according to Forrest.
“We really thank our local First Nation for their help. We named it Ts’uubaa-asatx Square after them and their generous donation of the totem pole. I would say that the ceremony raising that totem pole was one of the best community events I’ve ever experienced in my time in Lake Cowichan.”
And, of course, there’s the roundabout at North and South Shore Roads, completed in 2013, with the town and the transportation ministry sharing the costs 50/50.
“We also convinced ICBC to partner with us on our 50 per cent share; we ended up paying less than 40 per cent of that. With the traffic we’ve had the last few summers, you would never have been able to get off North Shore Road onto South Shore Road [the way it was].”
A lot of the comments on the town have been positive, he said.
“I hear all the time from friends or people coming back to the community how much they appreciate the changes. We don’t hear it so much from the local people, perhaps because it’s been so gradual they don’t see the changes: the batting cage at the ball field, our two new washrooms, our pickleball courts. The arena was done a few years back; it looks great.
“The town hall? We recognize it’s a bit of an eyesore in town. There’s a lot of things we want to do but there’s always a cost involved. When we get assistance, we’ll do it,” he said.
Along with these visible changes, there is also a new water treatment plant.
“It’s absolutely necessary for growing our community. That project is estimated at $6.3 million. It’s already started. We got a $5 million grant for that. It was mandated that we have this water treatement. We advocated government for assistance with it and were very lucky to get $5 million towards it. That should be completed in little less than a year.
“We also got $1.6 million towards our sewage treatment upgrade. We’re not in any dire straits. We can still grow for the next few years and be OK, but we want to get it completed so we are ready for more growth,” he said.
The renovation of Centennial ball park is also nearing completion now, thanks to a half a million dollar grant for the first phase.
“What it all comes down to is that we want a place where people want to come and enjoy themselves. I realized after the summer that we really have become a summer destination. There is no doubt that the numbers have increased a huge amount. [One of the tubing company operators] has told me their tubing business was 37 per cent busier than last year. There are a lot of businesses that are doing quite well in the summer time, but, trust me, the town council realizes 100 per cent that our businesses suffer through the winter here.”
The town is continually advocating with forest companies to get access to the mountains around the lake to get opportunities for quadding or mountain biking, according to Forrest.
“We’ll continue with that. One of those private forest land owners is one day going to say money isn’t everything and let us on there to increase the seasons around here. We recognize that businesses don’t make it for four months and do nothing for eight months.
“We know it’s tough. We really appreciate those of you that do it because our community is a much better place having small businesses so people don’t have to go out of town for things.”