Campbell River
Credit: Erin Wallis

Laurel Sliskovic, Alison Bell and Eric Heel all spent time in other parts of B.C. before deciding on Campbell River

RibbonVancouver Island’s third-largest city strikes a balance between urban development and its small-town roots

For Eric Heel, Campbell River looks even better the second time around. After earning a degree in civil engineering from UBC, the Victoria native took a job in this seaside city on the east coast of Vancouver Island, only to return to Vancouver for other opportunities with the same company. But three years ago, finding the Lower Mainland too busy and expensive, Heel came back to Campbell River, where he and his wife now own a home. “I’m pretty happy with that decision,” he says.

The board member of Young Professionals of Campbell River (YPCR) is far from alone. “In our group, there’s roughly 80 members,” says Heel, 29, a project engineer with McElhanney Consulting Services Ltd. “I would say a solid 20-plus have moved here in the past year or two from the Lower Mainland or Victoria or Calgary.”

On a brisk April afternoon, I’m sitting in an airy Campbell River coffee shop with Heel, fellow YPCR director Alison Bell and president Laurel Sliskovic. This residential neighbourhood across the street from the Beaver Lodge Forest Lands, a 1,000-acre wilderness preserve that feels like the city’s Stanley Park, is a short drive south of downtown. If you head east, you’ll soon find yourself on a long, wind-swept beach with unobstructed views of Quadra Island.

These three young residents are a vote of confidence in Campbell River, which endured some difficult years after the shuttering of the Catalyst Paper Corp. mill in 2010 contributed to forestry-related job losses of some 1,500. Vancouver Island’s third-largest city has since taken steps to draw new residents and businesses and grow into a regional centre for the north Island, while seeking to preserve its small-town charm.

Bell, now 32, communications coordinator with local Seymour Pacific Developments Ltd. and Broadstreet Properties Ltd., is a Campbell River native who spent a decade in Victoria before coming home two years ago. (Named Alison Davies when we meet, she got married over the summer.) “There’s so much outdoors stuff to do here as opposed to living in a [large] city,” Bell says. “The big reason I wanted to move home was for the lifestyle change.”

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Sliskovic, 40, who grew up in Ontario, moved here from Nanaimo in 2013. Co-founder of Sociable Scientists Inc., a consulting firm that focuses on leisure and tourism’s role in community development, she also teaches in the tourism program at North Island College’s Campbell River campus. “We were talking the other day about the number of people who make it work for themselves here because we all really want to live here,” Sliskovic, says. “It seems simple to create opportunities here because so many people are involved and engaged.”

Mayor Andy Adams recalls how Campbell River bounced back from the mill closure. “We had a lot of young people leaving this community,” the genteel Adams says in his office overlooking the Strait of Georgia. The upside for the retired Vancouver Island Health Authority administrator: “I like to say that we’re the only Catalyst community that lost a pulp mill but hasn’t decreased in population.” During the 12 years that Adams has served on city council, people have suggested that Campbell River concentrate on attracting seniors, he says. “But we’ve taken the approach of going for families.”

It seems to be working. Single-family home sales grew 34 per cent in 2016, the biggest gain for any Vancouver Island Real Estate Board zone. Campbell River, where the benchmark price of a single-family dwelling is about $370,000, issued a record number of development permits that year. It’s the third-fastest-growing city on Vancouver Island, says economic development officer Rose Klukas, who held the same post in Kitimat until 2016. Now home to almost 33,000 people, Campbell River plans to build out water, sewer, road and other infrastructure over the next 20 to 30 years to accommodate 65,000 residents.

Forestry and mining remain important, but Adams also points to the city’s strong manufacturing sector. It includes Sealand Aviation Ltd., which makes parts for Boeing Co. and Viking Air Ltd.; and T-Mar Industries Ltd., an exporter of steep-slope logging equipment. Aquaculture is another economic driver: three major fish farm companies—Cermaq Canada Ltd., Grieg Seafood BC Ltd. and Marine Harvest Canada—have head offices here. “People can walk right into a full-time job, which in Vancouver or Victoria is a little tricky,” Adams says.

As part of its effort to lure businesses that might otherwise choose those places, Campbell River is the first Vancouver Island community with a municipal broadband  network. The City, which is covering the cost of connecting downtown buildings with broadband fibre, will let wholesale clients lease access to the network, explains information technology manager Warren Kalyn. “We consider this a considerable advantage for Campbell River,” Kalyn says. “If we can drive down the bottom-line costs for investment in Campbell River by helping out at least at the broadband level, we’re one step ahead of a lot of municipalities.”

Over lunch on the picturesque waterfront—one of downtown’s four districts—I meet city manager Deborah Sargent and her deputy, Ron Neufeld. Sargent moved here in 2015 from Smithers, where she was chief administrative officer. “Campbell River is rapidly urbanizing, but it has all of those small-town amenities and that small-town friendliness and warmth that you don’t always see in a city as it starts on its journey to mature,” she says.

Sargent thinks the City has got its planning right because Campbell River isn’t growing too fast, but she wants to make life easier for investors. “You’re not waiting here for a rezoning application or a development permit for a year or longer,” she says. “Our turnarounds for applications are very reasonable, and we’re talking a matter of weeks, not months.”

Neufeld, who came to Campbell River from Saskatchewan in 1992 to take a job with the City, quickly fell in love with the place. He’s seen big changes since, including construction of the local airport and the Island Highway. “Real estate is still such a bargain here,” Neufeld says. “It’s a hidden gem on the Island.”

As proof that working with developers can also improve quality of life for residents, he cites Seymour Pacific Developments’ smart-looking headquarters, which founder Kris Mailman opened in 2014 on a downtown site near city hall previously occupied by abandoned buildings. “We sat down with him and worked through some very creative ways of how we could combine public investment in the streetscape with private investment in his own business interests, and combine the two and really get the most bang for the buck.”

After launching Seymour Pacific in 1983 as a single-family-home builder, Mailman began specializing in four-storey, wood-frame residential construction. Today, with Broadstreet Properties, the company has some 400 employees—roughly 160 of them in Campbell River—and manages about 10,000 rental units in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. “It puts us at a big competitive advantage because we do everything in-house,” says culture and community manager Amanda Raleigh, Mailman’s daughter, in the staff cafeteria. Raleigh, who has since become general manager of the Campbell River Golf and Country Club, Seymour Pacific’s first hospitality venture, says the business focuses on regions outside the core of major cities. “We stay away from city centres,” she explains.

The same could be said for second-time resident Eric Heel, who believes Campbell River is on the right path: “The community’s growing, people are moving back, so there’s more opportunities, and it’s just a good cycle.”