A local Air Force base is just one economic driver in this picturesque string of communities, home to industries ranging from tech to tourism
The three connected centres of the Comox Valley—the main cities of Courtenay and Comox, and smaller Cumberland—are Central Island outliers because they haven’t really had to reinvent themselves at all. Their healthy farming and tourism industries, plus 19 Wing, B.C.’s only Canadian Air Force base, which employs roughly 1,500 military and civilian personnel, have provided a steady source of jobs and customers. That’s rescued these towns from the boom-and-bust cycles their sometimes resource-dependent neighbours have been working hard to break away from.
Economic security has allowed the area to cultivate a more gentrified air, drawing on the agricultural and seafood bounty around it to host a raft of farm-to-fork restaurants and artisan food producers—and, more recently, breweries and craft distilleries. It’s also given Courtenay’s downtown core, dotted with art galleries, a pedestrian-friendly charm. Visitors may also feel like they’ve wandered into a mountain resort, courtesy of the nearby Mount Washington alpine recreation area (a big part of the local tourism sector) and the glacier that gleams above the valley year-round.
Meanwhile, sister city Comox—home of the airport, harbour, marina, Air Force base and much of the region’s industrial land—has been upgrading and beautifying its own downtown. Efforts to compete with Courtenay include incentive programs for downtown businesses, tax breaks to encourage residential density and a multimillion-dollar renovation of the Comox Centre retail plaza.
Shopping, fresh-food markets, wineries, skiing and beaches—plus a brand-new hospital to help with that golfer’s elbow—have made the Comox Valley a fast-growing retiree haven. (The median age in Comox is 51.8; Courtenay’s is 50.4.) The region is also a weekend home for working Albertans, thanks to direct flights from the Island’s second-busiest airport. But local businesses aren’t just supplying local residents. This one of the few parts of Canada where agricultural investment is growing: farm receipts totalled almost $34 million in 2016, and more than 50 percent of B.C. shellfish is produced here. The bustling airport helps transport everything from oysters to sprouts to buffalo brie, not to mention that unsettling international delicacy the geoduck clam.
The area’s lifestyle benefits mean the Island’s growing tech industry is showing up here as well, including developers in geomatics, smart sensors, industrial applications and digital media. Invest Comox Valley is responding, with workshops for early-stage entrepreneurs and an export navigation service for small business.
The Wing 19 Air Force base will be furthering its impact on the region, too: last winter, Comox broke ground on a new LEED-certified fixed-wing aircraft search-and-rescue training facility—a contract the city fought hard for and won last year. The high-tech centre for excellence will house 200 students, plus technicians, educators, maintenance crews and aircraft operators. The addition is great news for future castaways but even better for Courtenay and Comox, which welcome this vote of confidence from one of the valley’s most important economic stabilizers.
Household age (0-45, 45-64, 64+): 24%, 35.6%, 40.4%
University grads: 19.2%
Average household income: $86,328
Average household income under 45: $82,337
Five-year income growth, 2012-17: 17.4%
Five-year population growth: 3.8%
Average detached home price: $493,340
Average condominium price: $224,623
Average monthly rent for a two-bedroom: $884
Average annual household spending on shelter: $20,322
Key industries: Agriculture; aquaculture; air service support; construction and development; health care and social services; hospitality and tourism; technology and innovation
Notable employers: 19 Wing CFB Comox; City of Courtenay; Mount Washington Alpine Resort; North Island College; North Island Hospital; School District 71
Regional unemployment: 5.8% (February)
Total value of building permits issued in 2017: $140,703,000
Change from 2016: –13.6%
Cost of a business licence: Courtenay: $50-$1,000; Comox: $60-$600
Average processing time for a building permit: Varies by municipality and type
Business property tax rate: $20.70 per $1,000 of assessed value; Comox: $21.79, or $23.43 within Business Improvement Area (all rates 2017)
Average office lease rate per sq. ft./year: $15-$32
Average retail lease rate: $15-$32
QUALITY OF LIFE
Major post-secondary institutions: Excel Career College; North Island College; Sprott Shaw College
Major recreational amenities: Mount Washington Alpine Resort (summer and winter services); more than 40 regional and provincial parks; Comox Valley Sports Centre; curling rink; 40-acre exhibition grounds; wildlife viewing; golf; culinary tours; boating and paddling; local beaches
Key annual events: BC Seafood Festival; Vancouver Island MusicFest; Filberg Festival; Comox Nautical Days; Comox Valley Farm Cycle Tour; Comox Valley Dine Around
Average annual household spending on recreation: $4,790
Residents who walk or bike to work: 4.3%