Outlook brightens for region: Industry officials predict growth for high-tech, shipbuilding, tourism

Source: Times Colonist
Author: Andrew A. Duffy
Published Date: Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Chemistry Consulting’s annual economic outlook breakfast starts at 7:30 a.m. for a good reason — there’s a lot happening these days in Greater Victoria and the city needs as many hours as it can cram into a workday to deal with it.

That was the impression left by a series of presentations at the Victoria Conference Centre Tuesday that painted an optimistic picture of the local economy for 2014 and beyond.

With both high-tech and shipbuilding angling for skilled workers and juggling new projects, tourism “cautiously optimistic” and the region expecting strong returns from smaller sectors, including post-secondary education and film, Greater Victoria appears to be heading for better days.

Dallas Gislason, economic development officer with the Greater Victoria Development Agency, said it all combines to suggest Victoria will realize 1.8 per cent growth in its economy this year after last year’s 0.2 per cent contraction.

After a weak 2013, Victoria could be spurred along by infrastructure projects at the Department of National Defence, significant growth in the number of international students, new tax credits for the film industry and improved retail performance, Gislason said. But that appears to be just the start of the rosy picture.

Alex Rueben, executive director of the Industrial Marine Training and Applied Research Centre, painted a picture of a busy Victoria shipbuilding and ship-repair industry.

Rueben said the region’s shipyards will be inundated through the next 15 years and beyond with work maintaining and enhancing the Royal Canadian Navy
and B.C. Ferries fleets and a ton of work that will come through the National Shipbuilding and Procurement Strategy.

The shipbuilding program will see $7.3 billion spent with Seaspan to build up to 17 non-combat vessels in B.C. While most of the work on the vessels will be
done in Vancouver, Seaspan’s Victoria Shipyards will be responsible for finishing and trials.

“The NSPS is taking shipbuilding out of the boom-and-bust cycle that has happened in previous decades, giving it a future and giving people a career in shipbuilding and ship repair,” he said.

Rueben noted all that work and an aging workforce means significant job growth in the industry in B.C. — as many as 2,000 new jobs created through to
2020 while losing about 850 people to retirement.

The technology sector was also putting out the word that talent is needed. “Tell your friends,” euipped Dan Gunn, executive director of the Victoria Advanced Technology Council, the voice of the high-tech sector.

Gunn said the sector, which employs 15,000 people directly in Greater Victoria, is again forecasting growth in the range of eight to 12 per cent and job growth of about five percent.

He said the sector has seen “ a hiring surge” this year and a rapid increase in startup activity with new companies created to test the market.

The tourism industry was a little more guarded in its outlook. Tourism Victoria CEO Paul Nursey was “cautiously optimistic,” noting improving consumer confidence and economic growth give him reason to expect a positive 2014.

“But we are still recovering. We have not reached 2007-08 levels yet. If we think we are out of the woods, we are not,” he said.

Tourism, which annually pulls in just over $1 billion in revenue, had a solid 2013, and Nursey said it’s time to build on it.

“The underlying fundamentals are in place,” he said, with a nod to an improved U.S. economy and moderate strength in Canadian and Asian tourism, which continues to grow.

“But it doesn’t come easy… every jurisdiction is doubling down in terms of tourism investment.”

Nursey hopes to see more aggressive marketing and increased investment to allow B.C. and Victoria to compete while working on improving access to the Island.