Our eighth annual ranking of the province’s best communities for work
Carrying forward last year’s theme of resilience, our eighth annual ranking of B.C.’s best cities for work once again examines 50 of the province’s largest communities. With added consideration for social and environmental resilience, we throw a spotlight on the top regional performers and feature local businesses learning to navigate a post-pandemic world.
Ashley Ramsay took a leap of faith back in early 2013 when she and her husband, Todd, acquired a Kelowna studio space to launch Yeti Farm Creative. “Todd, having been born and raised here, and myself, having spent half my childhood here, wanted to come back home after having our first child to build jobs in our own community,” explains the CEO of the digital animation house.
Nine years later, Yeti Farm—which produces content for online platforms and streaming services such as Amazon Prime Video and Netflix—has become one of Kelowna’s many homegrown technology success stories. Its roster of work includes animated series like Pete the Cat, Hotel Transylvania and Beat Bugs.
After riding out the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company now faces a series of new hurdles. “The talent shortage in B.C. animation is palpable. It’s gotten to a breaking point, [and] it’s not just Kelowna,” Ramsay says. “If anything, it’s been easier for us to attract talent based on what we can offer in terms of work-life balance and a substantially lower cost of living,” she notes. “But the price of homes is on the rise, so who is to say how long we will be able to offer these incentives to young people who come here to work at the studio.”
With Kelowna staying near the top in our eighth annual ranking of the province’s best cities for work, Ramsay’s assessment offers a glimpse of the challenges confronting B.C. businesses and communities as they manoeuvre out of the pandemic.
To assess our cities’ abilities to withstand any further unpredictability heading into 2022, we’ve devised a modified set of 10 indicators with help from research partner Environics Analytics. Once again, this year’s ranking explores aspects of economic resilience, such as growth, employment and household finances.
But taking a broader view this time around, we’ve added indicators that consider social and environmental resilience, including a community’s sense of belonging and its household greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A third new indicator examines rental vacancy rates as a barometer for housing availability, while our fourth and final addition—an economic diversity indicator—considers how well represented different industries are among a city’s employed residents.
To gain more insight into how B.C.’s cities have fared during the past two years, we’re spotlighting three regional leaders in resilience. We chatted with local business owners and decision makers from a variety of industries—including food services, performing arts and tech—to find out how they’ve coped with the pandemic and what they think tomorrow holds.
Nos. 1 to 17
Nos. 18 to 34
Nos. 35 to 50
An overview of this list
Our second attempt to assess B.C.’s most resilient cities following the onset of COVID has resulted in several notable changes. One of the few cities to maintain its position year-over-year is Langford, at No. 1—making it the top-ranking city for the second time in a row.
New additions to this year’s top 10 are New Westminster (No. 2), Comox (No. 3), the City of North Vancouver (No. 6) and Coquitlam (No. 9), while Kelowna (No. 4), Parksville (No. 5), the Township of Langley (No. 7), Central Saanich (No. 8) and Courtenay (No. 10) make repeat showings.
After bearing the initial brunt of the pandemic, many Metro Vancouver municipalities saw an impressive reversal of fortune as rebounding job creation, a robust development industry and the greatest economic diversity in B.C. drove a rally in their scoring. Vancouver (No. 15) and Richmond (No. 21), two of last year’s poorest performers, leapt ahead 30 and 25 spots, respectively.
On the other end of the resilience spectrum, several of the province’s historically more resources-dependent towns, such as Port Alberni (No. 46), Prince Rupert (No. 47) and Quesnel (No. 49), struggled to make any gains over the previous year. Despite having B.C.’s lowest unemployment rate for much of 2021, Northeast cities joined them at the bottom.
With its communities accounting for half of this year’s top 10, Vancouver Island makes another strong showing. Even Victoria, which languished in the lower half in 2021 along with many of Metro Vancouver’s largest urban centres, jumped 15 spots to a respectable No. 16. Strong population growth, stable household finances, a booming development industry, low residential GHG emissions, and solid job and unemployment numbers all worked together to make Vancouver Island the province’s top-performing region.
Langford—fuelled by high population growth and a sizzling property development industry—has reinvented itself over the past decade. Once little more than a bedroom community of Victoria, it’s become an urban centre with its own unique and growing array of business services and amenities, including a dynamic restaurant scene.
“The past decade has seen immense growth, with everything from full-service restaurants to cafés, coffee shops and ethnic cuisine,” says Doug Stuart, owner and operator of Poncho’s Café and Catering Co. in Langford’s Goldstream Village. Stuart, a longtime resident of the city, bought Poncho’s with his wife, Arlene, in 2018.
Another of Langford’s independent establishments, House of Boateng, also opened its doors in Goldstream Village in 2018. “The way this city is growing, it’s really amazing to see,” says Castro Boateng, owner and executive chef of the award-winning restaurant.
Boateng chalks up Langford’s growth partly to its relatively affordable housing: “I think the fact that Langford is more affordable than Victoria is bringing more younger people this way.” Other draws include the city’s excellent recreational options, including mountain biking and hiking, and a wealth of job opportunities provided by new businesses and the city’s booming construction industry. “It’s almost become that you don’t need to go to Victoria anymore because you have all of these [opportunities] here,” Boateng says.
Langford’s pro-business attitude has been another factor, he reckons. “The City of Langford has been very, very supportive of young entrepreneurship in the last three to five years or so.”
Stuart agrees: “Langford is the place to do business—we have a very business-friendly mayor and council.” Looking back over the past few years, he calls the City a key supporter of the local business community. “During the pandemic, the City staff were very helpful,” Stuart says. “Any time I had questions or concerns, they were there to assist as needed. I have a very high regard as to how the City handled the pandemic, and continues to do so.”
The city’s restaurant industry was hit hard by the pandemic, but Stuart and Boateng both credit their determination to remain open and willingness to adapt their business models with carrying them through uncertain times.
“The businesses who chose to pivot and stay open did very well,” Stuart recalls. “We immediately adapted to a model of takeout and pickup orders. I also made Poncho’s posters and distributed them to the building managers in all of the condos and apartment buildings in the area,” he adds. “This was a huge payoff for us.”
Motivated by supportive staff and a deep sense of personal responsibility to his employees, Boateng found similar success in a new approach. “We switched to a take-and-bake model instead of takeout. This allowed staff to come in, prep all the food, organize it, and then we could sell it,” Boateng says. “And that worked really, really well for us.”
Having now navigated the worst of the pandemic, the two restaurateurs are optimistic. “In the past few months, since the circuit breaker was lifted at the end of May, our industry in Langford has been excellent,” Stuart explains. “I cannot speak for other municipalities, but I do know that Langford’s restaurant industry is booming.”
Inspired by the business strategies that carried him through the pandemic and signalling his confidence in the local market, Boateng opened a new store in November: HOB Fine Foods. “We decided to build more of a retail shop where you can pick up meals to go—it’s very chef-driven, so we’re bringing a lot of our chef friends’ products to our store,” he says. “We want people to be able to go into an area where you can shop all these wonderful artisan products being developed on the Island.” The new space will also host ticketed dinner events and private cooking classes.
While Langford kept welcoming new eateries in 2021, the restaurant industry isn’t its only bright spot. In September, the City announced the relocation of construction management specialist Plexxis Software’s headquarters from Brampton, Ontario, to a new Langford commercial space that is set to open this August. The City is also pursuing building a performing arts centre, welcoming a new postsecondary institution and attracting a new film studio to a business park development at the former Western Speedway racetrack.
After spending the past five years in the lower half of the Best Cities list, New Westminster made this year’s biggest surge. Hurdling 35 spots higher, the Royal City reached the top five for the first time in the eight-year history of our ranking. High population growth, low residential GHG emissions, a booming development industry and one of the province’s most diverse economies propelled it to the top of the Metro Vancouver heap.
New Westminster’s relative affordability has been a big part of its success in recent years, maintains Rich Patterson, owner of promotional products company Patterson Brands. “We were always around the Olympic Village area in Vancouver,” he recalls. “But then things changed, and by the mid-2010s it was just too expensive.”
When an affordable commercial space became available in New Westminster in 2016, Patterson jumped at the chance despite having never seriously considered the area before. “That was it—commercial building opportunity, we bought, and we’ve just been loving it.” About a year later, Patterson and his wife, Shannon, had also moved their home from Vancouver to New Westminster.
Jessica Schneider, executive director of New Westminster’s Massey Theatre, made a similar move from Vancouver to New Westminster in 2006. She thinks the shift east has only gained traction since then, especially among those in creative industries. “A lot of creatives from downtown Vancouver are moving out here because it’s more affordable but still very convenient for them to work in the region, whether it’s film or television or live arts.”
The city has had its own share of affordability challenges, notes Nikki Morris, executive director of the New Westminster Chamber of Commerce. But given its distinctive urban vibe and the bonus of a central location and easy SkyTrain access, she believes people are starting to rediscover it as a viable alternative to Vancouver. “[We] definitely have felt that push from, maybe, those people that wanted to live in downtown Vancouver and are now happier to live in downtown New West and be able to transport into work via SkyTrain two or three times a week, but get to live in a smaller, tight-knit community.”
Despite New Westminster’s recent success at attracting new residents and businesses, navigating the pandemic hasn’t been easy. “It was really tough, obviously, that one quarter in 2020 where it was all but shut down,” recalls Patterson, who’s now looking for a new operations manager after the previous one moved out of town with her family to pursue more-affordable housing. “It’s just been a whole perfect storm of the COVID slowdown, supply chain issues, difficulty in hiring—I mean, it just goes on and on.” Rising insurance and leasing costs have added to Patterson’s list of troubles plaguing the city’s small-business community.
Similar labour shortages have affected the arts community, Schneider says. “The biggest challenge has been that we haven’t been able to have live gatherings.” Many people who once helped produce live theatre performances, such as those with roles in lighting, sound and set design, have decided to leave the field, Schneider reports. “Some of them have gone into film and television, and it’s hard to get them back from those industries.”
Despite those difficulties, the Massey Theatre managed to avoid shutting down operations during the pandemic. “We’ve been able to continue to generate enough revenue through events without audiences—so a lot of performances being filmed and put on digital platforms,” Schneider notes. Having a favourable lease arrangement for the property and resources like the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) helped to further bridge the gap.
Key to New Westminster’s ability to ride out the pandemic has been its strong sense of community. “There’s not a lot of players here, but the ones that are here, we look out for each other, we try to support each other,” Patterson says. “And of course, something like COVID just brought that out in spades,” he recalls. “People really [went] the extra mile to shop local and be supportive, so that’s all been great.”
“New West is such a support-local, shop-local community,” Morris confirms. “It doesn’t surprise me that has become key to surviving and thriving through this pandemic.”
Despite recent setbacks, the community is hopeful about the future. “I think it’s one of the best places to be,” Schneider says of New Westminster and its arts scene. “We’ve just signed a 25-year agreement for this facility for an expanded complex around our theatre.” The new 47,000-square-foot arts centre has been branded Eighth and Eight Creative Spaces—a play on the two streets that the complex fronts. “We have a digital platform now, with cameras and recording equipment that we didn’t have before the pandemic, so we’re positioned to really support a much wider creative sector than we were before,” Schneider says.
“It feels like we can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Morris reflects. “The way we’ve been able to get through it is pulling together, supporting each other—communication has been key. I think if that can continue, then it’s only going to get brighter from here.”
Kelowna—consistently ranked in our top 10 for six years in a row—has earned its place among B.C.’s most economically resilient cities time and time again.
Strong population growth, high housing starts and one of the province’s healthiest unemployment rates were major contributors to its success in this year’s ranking. The Okanagan’s residential real estate industry was another bright spot, with Kelowna’s neighbours of West Kelowna, Vernon and Penticton all joining it among the top 10 performers for residential sales per 10,000 residents.
“You can just feel the growth of the city,” notes Yeti Farm co-founder and CEO Ramsay. “Looking across the downtown, it’s all highrises now, filled up and with people living in them.”
Kelowna’s tech business ecosystem and other development supports, such as the Centre for Arts and Technology, helped attract Ramsay to the city when she decided to launch an animation house with husband, Todd. “We had looked at other parts of B.C. to set up a studio, but we landed here after seeing the growth of Disney and the success of the animation school,” she says. Regional tax credits offered a further competitive edge, she acknowledges.
Since then, Ramsay has seen Kelowna and its tech industry boom. “It has grown a lot—faster than anyone could have imagined,” she says, pointing to development of Kelowna’s Innovation Centre, UBC Okanagan’s growth and planned expansion in the downtown core, and high-profile moves such as the recent acquisition of content moderation platform Two Hat Security by Microsoft Corp. “Kelowna, I feel, is really leading the way in growth in the province.”
Ramsay attributes the local tech sector’s meteoric rise to a mix of factors, including an Okanagan lifestyle that attracts and retains talent and a favourable cost of living compared to other areas of the province. The area’s solid pool of high-calibre artists, who are busy training the next generation of young talent, is another benefit.
While Kelowna’s tech industry has continued to flourish—even through the pandemic—the past two years have had their challenges. In particular, working from home has taken some adjustment for Yeti Farm’s 100 employees, Ramsay observes. “In some ways, it’s nice if staff can find a groove, but [it] can also hinder productivity because there are so many distractions and work hours are less controlled,” she says. “We are looking at bringing back a substantial amount of crew soon and adopting a 50/50 hybrid model where more-senior roles can work remotely and junior roles must be in their teams in studio.”
Workplace challenges aside, Ramsay remains optimistic about the industry’s prospects and her city’s overall economic outlook. How much so? “Extremely,” she says. “We anticipate a large growth curve [in 2022].” Ramsay points to signs that the rest of the city is similarly bullish. “You can sense the busy-ness downtown, and the hustle and bustle [has] definitely ramped up, with more funky restaurants opening and culture and diversity growing.”
Having a year of relative economic certainty to look forward to is a welcome change for the company, but after the trials of the past two years, Ramsay is making the mental health of Yeti Farm’s employees her first priority. “Content has never been in higher demand, but we are choosing our projects wisely, focusing on making our intellectual property grow and staying at a sustainable number for the time being,” she says. “Our core team is more important to us than growing and quickly rebounding.”
To determine the most economically resilient cities in B.C., we examined 10 indicators with weightings ranging from 5 to 15 percent, including six carried over from last year’s Most Resilient Cities ranking and four new ones. We reconfigured this year’s indicators to be less specific to pandemic recovery and to consider economic resilience more broadly, including its social and environmental aspects. Each city received a score out of 100 points and is ranked accordingly.
Five-year population growth
(maximum score of 10 points)
This figure represents the population growth for each city from 2016 to 2021. We gave the highest-growth city 10 points and scored the others in proportion to that.
Household financial vulnerability
This figure—an index created by Environics Analytics—looks at a range of household financial variables, including debt, liquid assets and discretionary income, to show how precarious a typical household’s finances are in a given city. The higher the index value, the more vulnerable households are on average. We gave the lowest value 15 points and scored the other cities in relation to that.
Resident sense of belonging
We derived this indicator from Environics Analytics’ CommunityLife survey. Cities with a greater share of residents reporting a “very strong” or “somewhat strong” sense of belonging scored higher than those with more people reporting a “somewhat weak” or “very weak” one. We assumed that cities with a stronger sense of community had stronger social resilience. The community with the greatest sense of belonging received a score of 5, with the others scoring in proportion.
Residential greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per 10,000 residents
This number reveals the at-home GHG emissions produced by a city annually for each 10,000 people, measured in tonnes of CO2. Derived from B.C.’s Provincial Inventory of GHG emissions, it reflects residential energy use, including emissions estimates from electricity, natural gas, wood, oil and propane consumption. Given the economic risk and uncertainty posed by climate change, we assumed a positive correlation between a city’s environmental and economic resilience. Communities using less energy and/or cleaner sources see fewer emissions on average, so the city with the lowest value received 5 points, with the others scoring accordingly.
Rental vacancy rate per 10,000 residents
This indicator reflects the reported vacancy rate for rental housing units from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s annual Rental Market Survey. Housing market observers such as the Royal Bank of Canada consider 3 to 5 percent a healthy rental vacancy rate. So a vacancy rate of 4 percent received the maximum score of 10, with cities above or below that value scoring proportionately less.
Residential sales per 10,000 residents
This number, from quarterly BC Assessment data, reflects the year-to-date sales totals for single-family and strata residential properties to the end of September 2021. After dividing sales totals by total city population, we multiplied that figure by 10,000 to determine the number of sales per 10,000 residents. We gave the highest value 10 points and scored the others accordingly.
Housing starts per 10,000 residents
We derived this value from the year-to-date housing starts from CMHC’s monthly Starts and Completions Survey to the end of September 2021. The city with the highest number of housing starts per 10,000 residents received a score of 10, with the others scoring in relation to that.
Change in jobs per 10,000 residents
This figure measures the change in the employed labour force from January to September 2021, derived from StatCan’s monthly Labour Force Survey. We scored the year-to-date difference in jobs out of a maximum value of 10.
Average annual unemployment rate
For this indicator, we averaged unemployment rates for each city from the first three quarters of the year. The averages were derived from rates reported in StatCan’s monthly Labour Force Survey for January through September 2021. We gave the lowest average 10 points and evaluated the others in relation to that.
We derived this value by applying the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index—a common means of measuring market concentration—to StatCan employment data to determine the labour force diversity of a city’s residents. The closer this number is to 10,000, the less diverse a city’s workforce is, while a number closer to 0 represents a more diverse workforce. We gave the lowest value 15 points and scored the others in relation to that.
Our ranking only includes cities of 10,000 or more permanent residents.
We excluded bedroom communities such as Lake Country, Oak Bay and West Vancouver, which may offer a high quality of life but have relatively small job markets.
Langley and North Vancouver are represented on the ranking by both their city and district municipalities.
Although we use the term “city” throughout, our annual survey is technically a ranking of municipalities, as legally defined by the B.C. Local Government Act.
We work with research partner Environics Analytics because we believe it has the best data available—but even the best data has its limitations. To produce municipal-level population growth numbers, for example, Environics Analytics used regional-level estimates from Statistics Canada to make 2021 projections.
Job numbers and unemployment rates come from StatCan’s monthly Labour Force Survey and only present figures for B.C.’s eight economic regions and four census metropolitan areas for the first three quarters of 2021. Similarly, monthly housing starts figures provided by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. and quarterly residential sales figures from BC Assessment only reflect the year-to-date figures collected to the end of September. As such, those indicators won’t account for economic trends over the final quarter of 2021.
Annual rental vacancy rates from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. only represent the “primary rental market,” or private apartment unit market. However, the primary rental market rates for four cities on our list weren’t reported because of unreliable or insufficient data. So we derived estimates for Summerland from reported vacancy rates for both apartments and townhouses; for Sooke from regional figures reported for the Capital Region; for Whistler from values provided for the Whistler Housing Authority’s stock of workforce rental housing; and for Sechelt from an analysis of its total rental stock, its advertised rental listings and the performance of its regional peers.