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Tuesday
Jul122011

Pro-Business Attitude Keeps Chilliwack Open for Business

Fraser Valley city has turned its past setbacks into opportunities
By James Kwantes, Vancouver Sun   July 11, 2011

As a high school student in Chilliwack, Brad Miller bought gas for his Ford F100 pickup truck with proceeds from working the 4 p.m. to midnight shift at Ironside's Machine and Welding, a local equipment manufacturer.

Miller is now president of the fast-growing company with 250 employees which designs, builds and exports compressed natural gas equipment, some of which is shipped to China, Bangladesh, Columbia, Peru and beyond.

Three years ago, Miller relocated the company to a brand new 55,000-square-foot production facility in an industrial park near Highway 1 in west Chilliwack.

The evolution of IMW from an old-school machinery manufacturer to a green-tech powerhouse is testament to the transformation of Chilliwack's economy, which used to revolve around agriculture. The city of 82,000 has aggressively expanded its industrial land base and created a low-cost business environment that is enticing companies from across the Lower Mainland.

Miller, who owns businesses elsewhere in the Lower Mainland, said IMW has stayed in Chilliwack because of the city's low land prices, stable employee base and pro-business local government. The company has now been sold which has spurred a 22,000-square-foot addition.

"When I compare trying to get a development permit or building permit or any of those kinds of things, it seems the further west you get the harder it seems," Miller said.

Statements like that are music to Mayor Sharon Gaetz's ears, particularly given Chilliwack's not-so-distant past.

Gaetz was a school trustee in the mid-1990s when major employer Fraser Valley Foods shut down, part of a shift south by a food-processing industry lured by lower labour costs. That was followed by the "devastating" news -just after Gaetz had been elected as a councillor -that Canadian Forces Base Chilliwack was relocating to Gagetown, N.B.

"The community felt as if it had been kicked in the solar plexus," she said. "We all felt like, 'Are you kidding me? How do we recover from this?'"

Both the food-processing industry and CFB Chilliwack were key parts of the city's identity, she said. Their departure prompted soul-searching in the city, as well as the erection of signs beside Highway 1 proclaiming that Chilliwack was open for business. The signs remain and the mayor's office still logs the occasional call from motorists.

But it was the creation of the Chilliwack Economic Partners Corporation, or CEPCO, that spurred development and helped the Fraser Valley city bounce back from the economic body blows. CEPCO operates as the economic development arm of the city but is incorporated as a private company, which gives it the flexibility to buy land and develop industrial parks.

The city of Chilliwack is the sole shareholder, and profits from development and land sales are plowed back into projects that help Chilliwack attract and retain business.

"It's worked out beautifully for the city of Chilliwack, in that we have this partner now that helps us with things we probably could not dream of doing," Gaetz said.

CEPCO's current focus is the revitalization of downtown Chilliwack. A recent success story is the demolition of the derelict Empress Hotel. The hotel had become a gathering place for sex-trade workers and drug addicts, said Gaetz.

Rather than having taxpayers foot the bill to buy the hotel and tear it down, CEPCO bought and demolished it and then funded soil remediation. It's now a prime development site, she said.

CEPCO also played a key role in the redevelopment of CFB Chilliwack. The former military base is now Canada Education Park, and 81-hectare site that houses several institutional training facilities and residential and commercial developments.

Agriculture remains a key industry in Chilliwack, accounting for six per cent of its gross domestic product, compared to three per cent provincially. It's home to 900 farms and a circle farm tour that highlights some of the innovative and niche agri-businesses that are springing up, Gaetz noted.

The food-processing industry has also risen from the ashes of the Fraser Valley Foods closure - Chilliwack has more than 20 food processors and an industrial park devoted to the sector.

Another business incubator has been the province's immigrant investor program, which requires a $400,000 investment for Metro Vancouver and Abbotsford but only $200,000 for Chilliwack.

Key to the city's economic development strategy is the creation of jobs with wages that allow a good standard of living, Gaetz said. To attract more of those high-paying jobs, council  is finalizing a one-year tax holiday for new businesses that invest more than $1 million in the community.

Average housing prices that are 60-percent cheaper than Vancouver and 30-percent cheaper than Abbotsford (according to MLS data) increase the city's appeal, she said.

jkwantes@vancouversun.com


CHILLIWACK BY THE NUMBERS

82,000: Population

72: Percentage of city workforce that lives in Chilliwack

6 km: Average commute

$11 billion: Value of assessed property, which has nearly tripled in the past 10 years

10: Percentage of the local labour force employed in manufacturing

8: Percentage of B.C.'s gross farm sales produced by Chilliwack farms

900: Number of farms in Chilliwack

Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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