In today’s ever-increasingly competitive business environment the need for municipalities to engage in robust, comprehensive economic strategies has never been so imperative. Economic development of human capital, critical infrastructure, regional competitiveness, social inclusion, health, safety and literacy are recognized as vital components for towns and cities to reach their maximum potential.
Abbotsford, B.C. is a modern city that combines the hospitality of a small town with the services of a large urban centre and an all-important diversified business base. In fact, The Conference Board of Canada has identified the local economy of Abbotsford as one of the most diverse in the country. Any civic leader who is involved in creating such economic development opportunities for their particular municipality would undoubtedly list business diversity at the very top of their wish list.
In September, 2014, Wendy Dupley moved to Abbotsford to head up the newly created Economic Development Department at City Hall. As the Executive Director, Economic Development, she arrived from Alberta via the United Kingdom with several other professional stops along the way, equipped with an impressive resume that includes having worked for the Australian government in Washington, D.C. and an executive international experience level that runs deep in both the public and private sectors.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Dupley about the business initiatives taking place in Abbotsford, a beautiful, picturesque border city of 139,000 situated in the Lower Mainland of the Fraser Valley region, about 75km southeast of Vancouver and a history that dates back to the 1890s, with official incorporation coming 70 years ago in 1945.
An exceptionally impressive business statistic that immediately leaps to the forefront is that 65% of the residents of Abbotsford work within city limits. Agriculture, manufacturing, aerospace and retail are the primary sectors driving the local economy, although there are many others contributing to the overall economic output.
“The berries from Abbotsford are exported all over the world so that’s probably what we’re most known for,” Dupley tells us. “What is also interesting is that the growing of hops has returned to the Fraser Valley. We are seeing a steady growth happening with inquiries and new breweries that are opening in Abbotsford.”
The re-emergence of the city’s manufacturing base has also made a noticeable big comeback in recent years, which has been an enormous economic benefit. In 2012, manufacturing jobs in the region grew by almost 41%.
“I think the big secret with manufacturing is that it’s niche and not mass production manufacturing. By producing specialized products, it is how we can compete globally,” Dupley continues.
Within that core niche manufacturing sector is a very lucrative aerospace transportation industry, led by Cascade Aerospace and Conair Group. Cascade is a specialty defence contractor focused on providing long-term integrated aircraft support programs for Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), military, government and commercial customers. Conair specializes in aerial firefighting and providing services such as aeronautical engineering design and support. Abbotsford International Airport serves as home base for a number of companies, including Cascade Aerospace and ConAir, the former of which is the largest private-sector employer in the city. WestJet and Air Canada have commercial flights in and out of the airport and there are more than 500,000 passengers who travel through the transportation hub on an annual basis. The facility has also gained notoriety for the annual Abbotsford Air Show, which has been known to attract as many as 100,000 visitors and in September, 1984, the entire world took note when it hosted an open-air mass with Pope John Paul II and had more than 200,000 worshippers in attendance.
The healthcare sector is another major economic employment driver for the city. Abbotsford Regional Hospital and Cancer Centre and affiliated community health services make Fraser Health the city’s largest employer with about 2,500 staff. Quite notably it was the first hospital in Western Canada to have a cancer centre integrated in its initial design. Constructed to meet LEED Gold environmentally friendly standards, it remains the biggest construction project to date anywhere in the Fraser Valley.
On the education front, the University of the Fraser Valley has an enrollment of 16,000 and is one of the primary sources of higher learning for young adults in the area, many of whom will represent and mold the next generation of the business community. In recognition of the increasing needs for higher education within the region, the B.C. government granted it full university status in 2008, which has resulted in many more local high school graduates opting to remain in the city rather than seek their higher learning elsewhere. The university has grown quite rapidly thanks largely to its providing a wide assortment of programs ranging from fine arts, communications, humanities, social sciences, business, economics, nursing and the technical trades. The Industry Training Authority predicts that the aerospace industry alone will require 4,000 new trades and technical workers within five years, including structural technicians.
“That’s what’s driving our median age here, which is below the provincial average. We have a young, well educated, skilled and growing workforce available for new business,” says Dupley.
An obvious economic advantage for Abbotsford is its geographic location, just a 45-minute drive from Vancouver and close proximity to the U.S. border. As such, the city is strategically positioned for exporting goods across the country as well as to Asian markets and the U.S. via air, land or sea. An abundance of available land is another major benefit, especially with much of the Lower Mainland experiencing advanced and continuous urban sprawl. Affordability is also a key benefactor in the mix, not just for land development and operating costs but utility fees as well.
“People can run a business with lower operating costs here and the people can live here – which is driving the 65% of the residents who both live and work in the city,” says Dupley. “We have everything we need in this community without having to leave to go to a big city. It has all the advantages of a big city with that community feel. From somebody like me who has lived in many places, I can honestly say that Abbotsford is a great place to be with very friendly, open people.”
Business Retention & Expansion
Business Retention and Expansion is key component of Dupley’s economic development strategy that includes nurturing and supporting all businesses in the community. Included within the program is in-depth project planning, data analysis, meetings and implementation of strategies. It is designed to promote job creation by assisting the community in learning about issues as well as identifying opportunities for local enterprises while setting priorities and planning efforts to address their needs.
Statistically, 75% of business growth within Canada comes from existing businesses that are expanding.
That percentage varies somewhat from one municipality to the next, but nonetheless it provides as an excellent indicator of just where a significant portion of job growth and expansion typically occurs.
As part of the business growth initiative there are a number of specific city tax incentives on the land surrounding the airfield and the city has very competitive lease rates and flexible terms to support the aerospace sector. Additionally, there are programs available to support the historic downtown development and business retention and expansion.
“We launched our program at the end of February and started a proactive outreach into the business community to capture a snapshot of their needs as regards to resources and support to help them expand here in the city,” says Dupley. “We have also started work on the business attraction component and have done some creative logo designing, working on a strategy for investment attraction built around some of our key industry sectors where we see our real opportunities to grow.”
“We want everyone to know that Abbotsford is very much open for business, which is why City Council has placed such a focus on Economic Development in our community,” adds Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun. “Abbotsford has a real potential to become the regional capital of business in the Fraser Valley, a preferred or community of choice for students and young families, and to be recognized as the most desirable destination in the Province.”
Economic Development Resources
The Economic Development Department already has a number of marvellous resources available for existing and potential enterprises in Abbotsford including: one-on-one mentoring, a pipeline to potential funding and industry-specific research and reports. There is a comprehensive online presence that is helping to drive the economic development initiative including: targeted videos, infographics and sector-specific information packages to assist in the successful deployment of many opportunities.
An excellent resource for economic development is OpportunitiesBC, an online database loaded with business and project opportunities that are deemed suitable for investment. At no cost, businesses will be able to submit their profiles to the database where they in turn will be featured on B.C.’s Trade and Investment websites. The submission is then reviewed by representatives who work with their network of stakeholders to assist in generating new business partnerships for like-minded companies who will then be able to assist one another.
The online aspect of economic development is going to continue to grow and will be at the centre of many of Dupley’s plans. The Economic Development Department is now building a standalone website for economic development purposes to give tools and access to businesses front and centre, equipped with the catchy tagline “Tomorrow’s Thinking Today”.
“I’m really excited about the new creative – the logo and tagline and some of the new attraction materials such as the info graphics that we’ve produced and the new website that will be launched this summer,” she says. “I’m excited about bringing those tools of attraction and business retention/expansion. We want people to be aware that we are open for business and to facilitate and present Abbotsford as that attractive destination. With so much to offer, Abbotsford is just beginning to realize its full potential.”
When it comes to tourism Dupley says the plan is to focus on an overall experience rather than specifically promoting individual attractions. There is tremendous potential in bringing in and developing a greater level of sports tourism with many parks and recreation and sports facilities that can be used to host any number of sporting-type events. Tourism is developing a strategy for that, as well as recreational mountain biking trails. With the current exchange rate there are more visitors from the U.S. than recent history because it’s more affordable.
A big event coming up next summer that is sure to attract many visitors will be the 2016 B.C. Summer Games, which already has the city buzzing with anticipation. Abbotsford has a long history of hosting Games, including the B.C. Summer Games in 2004, B.C. Special Olympics Games in 2009, and the Western Canada Summer Games back in 1995. Three new synthetic turf fields at the MRC Sports Complex are world class and will create a natural Games hub in connection with the nearby Abbotsford Exhibition Park and Columbia Bible College venues which will feature up to 1,500 athletes in action July 21 to the 24th.
“We’re always looking to expand our resources as far as trails and recreational facilities and looking into the opportunity of putting in some extra soccer fields. Sports are recognized as an economic driver because it can involve hotels and restaurants where visitors spend their dollars,” notes Dupley.
Looking to the Future
Many new investment inquiries constantly come in to Dupley, some of which are of the international flavour. There are also inquiries from Vancouver-based companies that are considering a move farther out of the main urban core because it’s far more affordable, which in turn helps with their level of competitiveness. All economies are cyclical and Dupley’s team wants to ensure they continue to help with the diversification of the local, regional and export markets, which includes venturing into some new sectors as well.
“We’re going to get more proactive on interest coming from the film sector, including a number of inquiries that came in before I arrived to do a lot of on-site filming with businesses, a lot of it in our historic downtown area,” reveals Dupley. “Part of the strategy I’m going to be developing this year is to raise more awareness of that.”
As previously noted, Abbotsford already has an impressive 65% of its residents also working in the city, but Dupley strongly believes that number can be increased considerably.
“Where we’re going with the new Official Community Plan that is being worked on by Development Planning Services is to look at how we’re going to identify Abbotsford to actually be home to 200,000 people. Part of that will be to ensure we have the continued growth in the number of businesses that are coming to Abbotsford. My measure is to see that we maintain the businesses here and grow them along with bringing in new businesses,” she says.
Vast international expertise in both the public and private sector made Dupley the ideal candidate to set up the Economic Development Department at City Hall, including the initialization of the Business Retention and Expansion program and also in raising the awareness about Abbotsford as being an attractive destination for new investment and by extension a fantastic place to live. Excellent location, top-rated urban amenities, prime agricultural lands, a revitalized manufacturing sector and friendly hospitality are just some of the many factors working in Abbotsford’s favour as it continues along its impressive economic development path.
“Abbotsford already boasts a wealth of opportunity and economic activity of all kinds, but it is also a community where the pace of life can suddenly slow from one street to the next; where children can grow up in safety; where people can be seen walking or cycling and enjoying our City’s natural environment,” adds Mayor Braun. “I encourage everyone to take a look at Abbotsford and see what we have to offer.”