2015 Year in Review: Major stories continue into new year

NANAIMO – Five top stories from the past year will continue to dominate headlines in 2016.

The News Bulletin’s newsroom chose five top stories from the past year that we will be following into 2016, including the foot passenger ferry to Vancouver, financial investment from China, the conference centre hotel, resettlement of refugees and the trial of Kevin Addison, accused of murder in the Western Forest Products shooting.

Trial for Western Forest Products shooter set for upcoming year

The April 2014 shooting at the Western Forest Products mill made headlines at the time and is expected to do so again later in 2016.

Kevin Douglas Addison, 49, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Fred McEachern and Michael Lunn, and two counts of attempted murder for injuries to Tony Sudar and Earl Kelly. Addison is awaiting a B.C. supreme court trial.

While the trial was originally scheduled to start in January, it has been postponed and is now expected to begin Sept. 6, according to the Gordon Comer, spokesman for the B.C. Criminal Justice Branch.

The trial is expected to last 30 days and take place in Nanaimo. It is expected to feature a judge and jury.

“As this is a jury trial we have to be very careful about what information can be provided,” said Comer.

“Generally speaking, a lengthy jury trial might start with an opening statement from the Crown,” he said.

The incident took place on April 30, 2014, with police receiving a 911 call around 7 a.m. about shots fired at the mill.

A preliminary hearing, to determine if there was enough evidence for Addison to stand trial, took place last March.

John Gustafson, who represented Addison at the hearing, said a plea, if any, wouldn’t happen before the matter is before B.C. Supreme Court.

The mill, situated on Nanaimo’s waterfront, was closed at the end of 2014.

Foot ferry project becomes competitive

Nanaimo’s foot ferry passenger service has yet to weigh anchor even though the project has been in the works for several years.

Now the main proponent, Island Ferries, could have competition as the Nanaimo Port Authority and the City of Nanaimo are putting out a joint RFP to seek private operators.

The idea of a foot ferry was embraced by Nanaimo city council as a project that would give residents more transportation options and could potentially attract newcomers, commuters, tourists and business.

The city and Island Ferries inked a lease for city-owned property which would allow the company to dock its catamarans, but the company sailed past a spring deadline.

Island Ferries continues to search for money, an ongoing pursuit since October 2013.

At the end of November, the port authority announced it was interested in investigating other options for foot passenger service between Nanaimo and Vancouver. The organization said it had the infrastructure to support the service.

A week later, the port authority and City of Nanaimo joined forces to search for foot ferry operators and sent out a request for proposals. The two parties will discuss the location and service with neighbouring communities.

Island Ferries expressed disappointment in early December over the announcement and said it had been working with a final investor on the project.

More refugees expected to make new homes in Nanaimo

Nanaimo will more than likely be rolling out the welcome mats for refugees impacted by the ongoing crisis overseas early next year, according to the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society.

A number of groups in Nanaimo have come together to sponsor a refugee family. Neighbourhood Church united with 10 churches in the city to sponsor a family from Africa while Brechin United Church and Unity Centre of Nanaimo partnered to sponsor a Syrian family and efforts are underway on Gabriola to bring two refugee families to the island.

Maureen Shakespeare, board member with the multicultural society, said she has heard that government-sponsored refugees could be arriving in Nanaimo sometime in January or February, but isn’t exactly sure how many could be coming.

Shakespeare said it is likely that the first wave of refugees in Nanaimo will be privately sponsored and that there will be more of them than those sponsored by the government.

She said in all her years of working with Citizenship and Immigration Canada that she hasn’t seen so much public interest in sponsoring refugees, adding that social media and the Internet are huge factor for the increased interest.

“We are in such a connected age that you get all the visual pictures and when you get the visual it really hits you,” she said. “We are getting people who were brought in as refugees way back … and this one has touched them.”

City still aiming to build hotel

The City of Nanaimo keeps getting its hopes up for a hotel, and at the outset of a new year, the city will keep hope alive.

The conference centre hotel, or lack thereof, has been a subject of discussion for a decade. The struggles continued in 2015, but with the city reporting “significant interest” in the hotel site these days, the story will keep developing in 2016.

SSS Manhao purchased the Gordon Street property in 2013 to build a 21-storey, $50-million hotel that would attach to the Vancouver Island Conference Centre, but it failed to pour the foundation by a project deadline this past May.

In June, the municipality attempted to put pressure on the developer, but the gambit failed, and in July, SSS Manhao advised the city it would not be building the hotel.

But the city isn’t giving up on its hotel dream. In December, it announced that it would put out a request for proposals for a hotel on the site, citing renewed interest.

“There’s a number of parties that the city and [Nanaimo Economic Development Corporation] have been cultivating for some time,” said Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay. “Now it’s time for them to get their thinking caps on and envision something that we think is going to be successful for both them and us.”

City staff will prepare an updated market study to accompany the RFP, which is expected to be issued in the spring. In the meantime, the city has promised not to further investigate repurposing the conference centre.

The coming RFP means that 2016 will be a revealing year for the hotel project. The City of Nanaimo and its citizens are about to find out exactly what level of interest is out there for downtown’s most eligible vacant lot.

Nanaimo courts investment from China

The city and business community kept looking in the Far East for the end of the rainbow and a pot of gold through 2015.

While Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay said in an interview in October that Nanaimo isn’t specifically targeting Chinese investment, that didn’t stop him from flying to China in November to network with potential investment groups.

Hitching Nanaimo’s wagon to a Chinese cash cow had its hiccups. McKay’s trip followed the death of the SSS Manhao hotel deal in July when, developer China-based SSS Manhao International Tourism Group, said through a letter from its legal firm, it would not proceed with construction of the proposed conference centre hotel after the company asked for a six-month extension to its construction start date and city council countered with conditions that it commit $100,000 for improvements to Piper Park and relinquish first negotiation rights for possible management of the Vancouver Island Convention Centre.

In June, racial slurs and a swastika were spray painted on Hammond Bay Road bus stop bench advertisements for local Chinese realtors. The vandalism followed a distribution of pamphlets to Nanaimo homes by a group called Putting Canada First, although Paul Bentley, the group’s chairman, said in an e-mail, “…acts of vandalism and racist slogans are antithetical to our efforts.”

Chinese investors, especially those buying businesses through the B.C. Provincial Nominee Program, can face lag times that can stretch years before, getting approval for permanent residency in Canada and take over a business, if they make it successfully through the program. They also must overcome language and cultural barriers, differences in business practices and a host of other difficulties that come with immigrating to a new country.

In spite of the hurdles, numbers of people trying to start new lives here keep rising. In 2010, the province reported 135 business immigration applications. There were 1,085 last year. Within those four years, investment by entrepreneur immigrants reached $472 million with 1,449 jobs created in B.C. In Nanaimo, there have been 134 applications for businesses since 2003-04, with 26 nominated for residency and 65 applications are awaiting nomination decisions.

As one business student from Shanghai attending Vancouver Island University said in conversation several years ago, “China is where you make money, but here is where you live your life.”

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