B.C. City Guide 2018 - Duncan and the Cowichan Valley
Credit: Destination BC/Boomer Jerritt

widgetThis steadily growing community balances its role as a regional service hub with bucolic bona fides and a charming downtown

Like the Comox Valley to the north, the Cowichan Valley, which forms much of the South Island, is coming into its own as foodie-tour paradise, its rolling roads dotted with wineries, creameries, cideries, artisan dairies and now even a tea farm and a salt maker. Once a mostly forgotten stretch ignored by drivers as they sped back and forth between Nanaimo and Victoria, this region of hidden harboursides and agri-pretty enclaves is fancying up fast, particularly any pocket that has a lake or ocean view: Mill Bay, Maple Bay, Shawnigan Lake and, more recently, even parts of working-class Crofton. The functional, no-nonsense heart of it all is the city of Duncan, which, like the surrounding valley, saves its charm for those who make the effort to get off the highway.

Geographically, Duncan is Canada’s smallest city, and the population within its limits is tiny, too, at less than 5,000. But it’s the service centre for the entire Cowichan Regional District, which holds almost 50,000 people (and far more in the valley as a whole)—explaining the big-box grocery stores, gas stations and chain restaurants that define the town’s main strip. (The addition of the Cowichan Commons retail park, opened by Vancouver’s Shape Properties 10 years ago and featuring Best Buy, Home Depot, Canadian Tire and a Walmart supercentre, was a clear sign for locals that investment was finally coming into the area.)

But the blunt utilitarianism of the highway stretch and the industrial lands to the north and south belie the city’s cute, walkable and economically healthy downtown, out of view of the strip and supporting a wealth of independent retailers: bookstores, kitchenware shops, cafés, health food stores, a movie theatre, a performance space, high-end shoe and clothing boutiques and even a premium olive-oil tasting bar. On Saturdays, locals and tourists crowd the streets for the weekly year-round farmers market, one of the biggest in B.C.

Besides being a service hub for the region—retail, health, education, et cetera—Duncan is a source for trade labour: the large Cowichan area’s fishing, farming, forestry and marine manufacturing sectors support a pool of tradespeople and have bestowed the city with a high concentration of skills certification compared to the rest of the province. The Cowichan Tribes (B.C.’s largest First Nation band) are a big source of labour and employment, with a portfolio that includes silviculture, commercial leasing, and a tourism and conference centre.

A tech strategy is in the works to help Duncan attract its fair share of the Island’s growing digital entrepreneurialism, along with plans to support more value-added food and beverage business. Meanwhile, Duncan keeps its balance of meat-and-potatoes service with upper-crust retail and tourism opportunities: whether you want to go posh or practical, there’s likely a customer here for you.

Population: 45,126
Household age (0-45, 45-64, 64+): 25.3%, 39.7%, 35%
University grads: 17.4%
Average household income: $85,808
Average household income under 45: $80,917
Five-year income growth, 2012-17: 16.9%
Five-year population growth: 2.3%

Average detached home price: $316,885
Average condominium price: $203,748
Average monthly rent for a two-bedroom: $820
Average annual household spending on shelter: $20,425

Key industries: Forestry; fishing; farming; health care and social services; tourism
Notable employers: Catalyst Paper Corp.Cowichan Commons storesCowichan Tribes School District 79Vancouver Island Health AuthorityWestern Forest Products Inc.
Regional unemployment: 5.8% (February)

Total value of building permits issued in 2017: $3,996,455
Change from 2016: 67.8%
Cost of a business licence: Typically $100
Average processing time for a building permit: 1 week
Business property tax rate: $11.50 per $1,000 of assessed value
Average office lease rate per sq. ft./year: $15-$16 (downtown)
Average retail lease rate: $20-$24 (downtown ground floor)

Quality of LifeQUALITY OF LIFE
Major post-secondary institutions: Vancouver Island University
Major recreational amenities: Island Savings Centre skating rink and aquatic centre; splash park; Cowichan Theatre; culinary tours; boating and paddling at local harbours and marinas; six golf courses nearby
Key annual events: Cowichan Aboriginal Festival of Film and Art; 39 Days of July Summer Music Festival; Islands Folk Festival; Vancouver Island’s largest year-round weekly farmers market
Average annual household spending on recreation: $4,828
Residents who walk or bike to work: 3.8%