The Harbour City offers urban sophistication, a thriving knowledge economy and quick access to the mainland
For many years, the Island’s second-largest city sat comfortably in the shadows of Vancouver’s highrise gleam and the waistcoated charm of Victoria. Unpretentious, down-to-earth—maybe a little seedy in spots—Nanaimo quietly did its work, offering affordable homes, decent resource industry and service careers, and an outdoorsy lifestyle for urbanites who don’t need immediate access to an international celebrity chef. But on the hot West Coast, its oceanfront location, abundant industrial land and strong transportation links couldn’t have gone unnoticed forever. As a result, this former coal mining and logging town has been getting plenty of second looks—and new residents.
Recent growth has made Nanaimo the province’s No. 5 urban centre. In the early stages of Vancouver’s real estate run, its cheap homes, two Lower Mainland–bound ferry terminals and frequent downtown-to-downtown seaplane hops made it a tempting bedroom community for some. (The growing population may even give the latest proposed commuter ferry a shot.)
But a critical mass of investment is starting to stay home. There are now 6,000 businesses within Nanaimo proper—2015 alone saw a 15-percent jump. The heritage spaces of the revitalized Old City are occupied by resource-tech ventures, digital media and green energy startups, environmental consulting firms and expansion offices for companies outgrowing their bigger-city headquarters, along with the coffee shops, taco spots and cupcakeries needed to serve them. The greater Nanaimo region has about 350 technology outfits; combined, they generate $200 million in annual revenue, according to a 2017 sector profile by Vancouver Island University (VIU).
Meanwhile, the Nanaimo Port Authority has seen a 50-percent increase in annual tonnage since 2013, and a $55-million airport expansion that began this spring follows $27 million worth of improvements in 2012. The city is also home to the main VIU campus, which is undergoing a $352-million capital upgrade.
The upshot: local real estate isn’t the screaming deal it once was (detached homes have gained more than 30 percent in value since 2015), but still far more affordable than in Vancouver and Victoria.
The rental market is looser, too, with vacancy rates at 1.5 percent for the city centre as of October 2017. And the Harbour City’s notable sprawl is slowly going vertical, as downtown condo towers start to see the kind of pre-build sales uptake that Vancouver is famous for. Nanaimo is still decidedly laid-back, but a big-city flavour is asserting itself, smoothing out some of the rough edges. Celebrity chefs, take note.
Household age (0-45, 45-64, 64+): 30%, 40%, 30%
University grads: 20%
Average household income: $85,025
Average household income under 45: $75,263
Five-year income growth, 2012-17: 16.8%
Five-year population growth: 6.2%
Average detached home price: $518,449
Average condominium price: $284,400
Average monthly rent for a two-bedroom: $983
Average annual household spending on shelter: $20,942
Key industries: Health care; science and technology; retail; construction; education
Notable employers: Nanaimo Forest Products; Nanaimo Regional General Hospital; School District 68; Shaw Communications; Vancouver Island University; Woodgrove Centre
Regional unemployment: 5.8% (February)
Total value of building permits issued in 2017: $203,593,819
Change from 2016: –3.74%
Average processing time for a building permit: 4.5 weeks
Cost of a business licence: Typically $165
Business property tax rate: $21.28 per $1,000 of assessed value
Average office lease rate per sq. ft./year: $10-$25
Average retail lease rate: $14-$35
QUALITY OF LIFE
Major post-secondary institutions: Academy of Learning; Discovery Community College; Sprott-Shaw College; Tamagawa Nanaimo Campus; Vancouver Island University
Major recreational amenities: Several parks and beaches; two indoor pools; one outdoor pool; three skating rinks; three golf courses; public seawall; New Castle Island provincial marine park; hiking, mountain biking, boating and paddling; diving and snorkelling; bungie jumping
Key annual events: Nanaimo International Jazz Festival; Dragon Boat Festival; Bathtub Race and Silly Boat Regatta; Nanaimo Pumpkin Festival; Nanaimo Wine Festival; Diwali Festival of Lights
Average annual household spending on recreation: $4,800
Residents who walk or bike to work: 4%