Affordable real estate and a friendly business climate help make the port city a good place to get started
Port Alberni is a city of some contradiction: seemingly in the middle of Vancouver Island, it’s actually a deepwater Pacific port at the tip of long Alberni Inlet; where news reports feature social issues and a struggling resource industry, residents see a tight-knit hidden gem full of friendly people who like to get involved in their community. (And get involved they do—with sports leagues and facilities that belie Port Alberni’s size, plus welcome wagons and streetside socializing straight out of the movies.)
One thing is certain, though: factoring in its proximity to the transport hubs of Comox and Nanaimo, above-its-weight child education and health services, and that 15 minutes from your office door you can be kiteboarding or diving into a lake, it remains the most affordable place on the Island to buy a home, launch a venture and enjoy that active, mild-weathered West Coast lifestyle.
The town is an amalgamation of communities that joined in the 1960s, leaving five separate commercial districts. Revitalization programs have brightened up the downtown and historic harbourside areas, with support from the city for patios, planters and facade fixups; the latest focus is on beautifying the main highway strip to draw tourists on their way to Tofino.
Port Alberni’s small size means businesses have a direct line to the city, which holds regular district focus groups and organizes bootcamps to help local entrepreneurs boost their skills. The city has larger projects in the works, too, including an aerial wildfire-suppression centre of excellence and improved portside sea-to-land shipping infrastructure.
That civic encouragement and the cheap commercial building lots have locals tagging it “Vancouver Island’s launch pad”: a good place to get started, whether it’s a family or a new company. The low residential prices help, too—homes start at under $200,000, though you can get your million-dollar waterfront estate in tony Sproat Lake if you want it.
A good few startups have seen success here over the past few years, some using the low costs to stay lean until they reach fighting size and can take on pricier environments. Agog Labs took its SkookumScript gaming language to Victoria after attracting VC funding; agricultural biotech developer Cotyledon Consulting now splits its research time between a “DIY” lab in Port Alberni and the Foresight tech accelerator in Surrey.
One selling point for younger people is accessible daycare: a fraction of the cost of Vancouver, and no need to get on a waiting list before you even buy the pregnancy test. That affordability may have contributed to last year’s 20-percent spike in business licences issued and 8 percent rise in building permits.
Although Port Alberni is arm’s reach from the tourist hordes to the east and the surfer haven to the west, its lumber-centred economy and rugged, woodsy vibe keep it a bit more real—but it’s still got enough youthful cool that Expedia.ca recently called it the “hot lumberjack hipster of B.C.” It’s a place to consider for those who want to take off some financial pressure and get their chance to dig in, kick back or both.
Household age (0-45, 45-64, 64+): 25.5%, 39.8%, 34.7%
University grads: 9.7%
Average household income: $73,795
Average household income under 45: $69,469
Five-year income growth, 2012-17: 14.8%
Five-year population growth: –4.1%
Average detached home price: $247,673
Average condominium price: $134,692
Average monthly rent for a two-bedroom: $800
Average annual household spending on shelter: $16,958
Key industries: Forestry; aerospace; marine industrial and commercial; health care; aboriginal administration; tourism
Notable employers: Canadian Maritime Engineering; Catalyst Paper Corp.; Coulson Group of Companies; Island Health; Lady Rose Marine Group; North Island College; Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council; School District 70; Western Forest Products
Regional unemployment: 5.8% (February)
Total value of building permits issued in 2017: $16,296,274
Change from 2016: 8.2%
Cost of a business licence: $132-$2,200; typically $132
Average processing time for a building permit: 2 weeks
Business property tax rate: $15.45 per $1,000 of assessed value (2017)
Average office lease rate per sq. ft./year: $12
Average retail lease rate: $4-$20
QUALITY OF LIFE
Major post-secondary institutions: North Island College; Pacific Coast University for Workplace Health Sciences; Windsong
Major recreational amenities: Skating rink; curling rink; pool; walking track; outdoor fitness centre; gymnastics facility; rugby club and field; stadium/track-and-field facility; tennis complex; lacrosse box; BMX and motocross tracks; off-road racing site; 38 local and regional parks; boating and paddling; fishing; scuba diving; gliding; mountain hiking and biking; theatres and arts centres
Key annual events: Polar Bear Swim; Rotary Mardi Gras; The Shaker music festival; Armada Athletics Concert Series; AV Hospice butterfly release; Solstice Arts Festival; Canada Day Parade; Pride Festival; Jane Austen Festival; Tsunami Hawgs motorcycle festival; Thunder in the Valley legal drag racing; Port Alberni Salmon Festival; Alberni Valley Wine Festival; Fall Fair and Logger Sports; West Coast Winter Wonderland; Light Up Alberni
Average annual household spending on recreation: $4,029
Residents who walk or bike to work: 4.1%