Town council and Chamber of Commerce agree to work together to find solutions

Making Lake Cowichan more business friendly and cleaning-up derelict buildings

Lady of the Lake candidates introduce themselves to council

The council meeting that took place on Tuesday April 24, started off with the candidates for Lady of the Lake introducing themselves and getting a chance to meet Mayor Ross Forrest. Mayor Forrest welcomed the candidates and encouraged them not to be nervous. “This is always an exciting time of year when the Lady of the Lake delegates come and visit us for the first time,” began Forrest. “It’s always nice for us to have the opportunity to listen to you and see how you’ve grown from now until the crowning in June.”

After an introduction by Miriam Coghlan, this year’s Lady of the Lake pageant coordinator, each candidate stood, introduced themselves, and gave a little bit of information regarding their interests and their sponsors. They then were invited to shake Mayor Forrest’s hand and were given a pen and a Lake Cowichan pin.

There are nine candidates in all this year, and Coghlan says they have been working hard to prepare. “You’ll be quite impressed with them tonight,” said Coghlan. “They will be delivering their sponsor speeches on Saturday at the Spring Fling.”

Chamber questions council’s decision not to increase visitor centre and chamber funding

Rita Dustow, Chamber of Commerce president, along with a delegation of chamber members, said they attended the meeting in order to introduce the new board of directors and to make council aware of two major concerns.

The first had to do with council’s decision not to include a funding increase to the chamber and visitor centre in the town’s 2012 budget. “We are here to request a revision of our annual fees and services for the town. Since 2010 we have applied for an increase but have not been given one,” said Dustow. Since that time the chamber has increased the wages of its summer student employees and their visitor centre coordinator, Kathryn Worsley. The chamber recognizes that it shares the burden of these costs with the town but needs the town’s help to pay their employees a fair wage and keep up with the increase in minimum wage.

The Chamber of Commerce recognizes that on top of the money it receives from the town, the town also pays for the upkeep of the outside of the chamber building and pays for its hydro. However Dustow pointed out that the chamber has requested new down-spouts for the Visitor Centre for the last two years and has not received them. They have also built and maintained the information kiosks at Saywell Park and Mesachie Lake to promote the Cowichan Lake area. There are approximately 160 businesses in Lake Cowichan, which the chamber represents, and the town takes in approximately $16,000 in licence fees from these businesses. Dustow believes that these funds cover the costs incurred by the chamber. “We are asking that the town match the increase we are getting from areas F and I to help us pay the staff a better wage.”

The chamber then asked the council to address the concerns they have received from local businesses over confusion about business licenses, (what are perceived to be) excessive late fees, why some business owners must pay for a parking space when spots are not designated with the business owner’s name, and the areas relatively high business property taxes (when compared to some other Vancouver Island municipalities). Dustow presented nine letters of concern, but started off by saying, “There is a lot we as the chamber, and the town, can do together to make our community a better place to live and do business here.”

The confusion the chamber says local business are experiencing when it comes to business licences stem from the difference between a store front business licence, and a mobile business licence. “If you buy [a licence] for a store front, you can use at the market in other areas of the Cowichan Valley,” stated Dustow, “but if you have a mobile one, you can’t use it to set up a store front in our areas. They all cost $100 a year so if a business decides to settle here and has an inter-municipal license, why not allow them to use it for the rest of the year and inform them that next year they must buy one here. We have just lost a business due to that.”

The other confusion the chamber expressed businesses owners having, was over the requirement to have two separate business licences when operating two businesses under one roof. She quoted bylaw 777-2003.4, which states, “When more than one business activity is carried out by a single business entity at a single location, only one business licence will be required.”

Dustow also addressed the many derelict buildings in town. She had copies of White Rock bylaws for council to look over, which she felt might help to provide solutions to the state of some Lake Cowichan business buildings.

Mayor Forrest responded by pointing out that Duncan, Nanaimo, Ladysmith, Pt. Hardy, Pt. Alberni, among others, pay higher business property taxes than Lake Cowichan. It was also pointed out that Lake Cowichan business property taxes have been decreasing since 2005.

Coun. McGonigle then spoke saying that the budget for 2012 has already been approved and that an increase to the chamber’s funding from the town “could not be done without a further increase in tax rates. I know we are all struggling with the decisions that we do make. We have a pot of money that we do take in with taxation which is our only source of revenue and the needs and wants of the community are far outweighed by those taxes.” McGonigle pointed infrastructure projects the town will be struggling to finance, such as the water filtration system mandated by VIHA to be installed by 2015, at a cost of $4 million to the town.

When the discussion again turned to the state of some of the business buildings in town, Forrest suggested that if the town requests the building/business owners fix up their buildings, the town and council will be seen as the “bad guys.” He suggested that what needs to happen is an ironing out “of what everyone is responsible for.” He pointed to the new businesses that are coming to town and says he and council are passionate about what they are doing for the town.

One chamber member spoke about how he and the chamber have been hearing that the town is unfriendly to businesses and that nobody seems to know why. He suggested that the town and the chamber work together to find out why this is and where the actual problem lies. The chamber wants businesses who are coming to town to be successful and feel welcome.

Forrest responded to this by saying “The perception out there, and I hear it all the time, is that we’re anti-business. But I can tell you that there are a couple of new businesses coming to town and I’ve seen emails from the proprietors of those new businesses thanking the town for the great service they are giving and for making it happen for them.” Forrest said he feels that it is local business owners who are spreading rumours about the town being unfriendly towards businesses and that at one point he had to go to a business owner in town and confront them. “It bothers me that the business owners, and the chamber, who are supposed to be trying to entice people to come to this nice community, are the ones that are sending the negative vibes out there that are chasing the people away.” He pointed to the plans for a new town square and other decisions that have been made in terms of capital projects have been to try and bring more businesses into Lake Cowichan.

Lorna Vomacka, owner of Lake Cowichan Furniture and Appliances stood and reiterated that businesses and the chamber are not expecting the town to solve all the issues for them, but would like to work together with the town to find some solutions. She pointed out that the businesses in Lake Cowichan are shouldering the tax burden and said that if businesses close in the area, this decreases the revenue for the town.

While the discussion was heated at times, both council and the chamber agreed that they would meet to try and create solutions to the issues brought forward by the chamber. Coun. Bob Day suggested that the discussion should be an ongoing one. He stated that Lake Cowichan is a depressed area, but he feels that the town is finally starting to turn a corner.

Other miscellaneous items of discussion

– Council members looked at a change in funding request from the Salmon and Mushroom Festival which could not be approved because the 2012 budget has already been passed.

– Council noted that resolutions made to the report regarding 2011 General School Elections do not effect Lake Cowichan.

– Coun. McGonigal pointed to the logging that is currently taking place in the Community Forest Coop, contracted to Timberstone Contracting. Currently three lots are being harvested with approximately 13,000 cubic metres of timber being removed with more to be removed by the end of May. After May there will be subsequent plans put forward for consideration for further harvest.

– Fisher Road Recycling is currently appealing to the Board of Regional Services to increase its license to include recycling. The appeal is still being debated and Fisher Road has made its presentation, and staff have made their recommendations.