Battle for the boat basin

NANAIMO – Port Authority responds to concerns about a marina lease agreement with a private company,while opponents remain skeptical.

Nanaimo Boat Basin

Nanaimo Boat Basin

Nanaimo Port Authority’s CEO and president Bernie Dumas cited a changing business model and financial loss as contributing factors behind a 30-year lease agreement with Pacific Northwest Marina Group to redevelop the harbour.

But the agreement, which has raised the ire of several stakeholder groups in Nanaimo, ensures the marina is being developed for the community without a dime out of the taxpayer’s pocketbook, he said.

The Nanaimo Port Authority is the federal agent responsible for the administration of the harbour, waters and foreshore of Georgia Strait in an area adjacent to Nanaimo. It operates as a small business and as such, does not receive subsidies from the government.

Dumas said the marina has been losing money for several years – approximately $230,000 in 2010 and another $180,000 in 2011 –  facilitating the need for change.

For some time, the port authority has voluntarily subsidized the commercial fishing fleet, which has been slowly eroding, Dumas said.

“Back in the late ’90s, there were 50-60 commercial fishing boats in the marina. As of this week, there’s 17,” he said.

Based on their new business model, and due to pressure from other marina occupants to be fair, the port authority will no longer be offering those subsidies.

“The Port of Nanaimo is the gateway for cargo and freight … it was created as one of the 18 port authorities across Canada to assist companies, exporters and importers, to move their goods, and the port is really focusing on that aspect and that will produce, hopefully, as we increase the volume of business, new opportunities, employment, relocating companies to Nanaimo to manufacture goods,” Dumas said. “We’re focusing our efforts for the future on those activities.”

Those efforts, along with PNMG’s proposal, fall in line with the port’s Path 2025 strategic plan, which calls for commercial and transportation upgrades and modernization over the next decade, Dumas said.

Pacific Northwest Marina Group has said its $9-million investment into the downtown marina will provide vital upgrades to the aging 4.5-hectare marina, which would include replacing creosote piling with steel piles and wood floats with concrete finger slips, a second walkway on the water and a venue for seasonal events.

The company has stated that the change will increase public and recreational boater access, and up moorage capacity by 40 per cent.

“It’s going to be brand new and very high tech and environmentally friendly,” Dumas said. “There’s going to be a stronger economic impact because there’s going to be more activity in that area … That means there’s going to be more opportunities.”

Those words hold little assurance for Michelle Corfield, spokeswoman of a Nanaimo coalition of citizens concerned about privatization of the harbour.

The coalition has been supported by local residents and marina stakeholders such as commercial fishermen, Protection Island residents and Snuneymuxw First Nation members.

Protection Island residents asked for reassurance of continued access to the boat basin, while the commercial fishers say they will not be able to afford the cost of private moorage. They are also concerned that offloading facilities will be moved to the Assembly Wharf, where there will be no access to a crane.

According to information provided by Corfield, there are about 40 commercial fishing boats that use the Nanaimo harbour and another 30 that moor elsewhere.  Additionally, there is a large transient component that offload, stage or re-supply in Nanaimo. Approximately 300 Nanaimo residents work full-time as commercial fishers, Corfield said.

Snuneymuxw First Nation also expressed concern over a lack of consultation in the marina development process, despite the fact that they hold significant rights to the land and fishery under the Douglas Treaty.

Corfield said First Nations communities in B.C. are heavily reliant on the marine environment for the production and dissemination of their traditional food needs,  and that their access is protected under the Constitution.

In addition to those issues, members of the coalition have criticized the port authority for choosing a private company to manage what they see as a public asset before putting it out to tender.

“We’re also exploring all legal options available to all stakeholders,” Corfield said.

While several changes have been put forth, Corfield said the changes do nothing to address their concerns.

“I don’t think any stakeholder will agree that the port authority has listened or accommodated their interests,” she said. “You can’t alienate or ignore every stakeholder that utilizes the harbour, you have to meet the needs of those who utilize the space.”

Dumas said he is concerned that there is misinformation being circulated in the public. He said that the port handles a large number of lease arrangements in the harbour each year and because PNMG approached them for a lease contract, the port authority does not have to go through the request for proposals process.

He said the port has met with Protection Island residents several times in the past few months.

“The design of the marina has been changed a couple of times from the original concept to cover their needs, and that had to do with the ferry location and it also has to do with a number of 20-foot slips for that type of boat,” he said.

He said the only concern he is aware of is that Protection Island residents are seeking a longer term moorage for their vessels.

“Moorage slips in marinas are done on a yearly basis, they’re not something that marinas do for long term,” Dumas said. “This seems to be a problem for Protection Island – they want to ensure that they have access throughout the [30-year] lease.

“The spirit of the arrangement we have with Pacific Northwest is catering, to some aspect, to Protection Island people and I don’t think they have to worry about things being changed down the road,” he said, adding, “the lease agreement … will have some language in there that any major changes to the marina, they will have to consult with us.”

Dumas noted also that the moorage rates for commercial vessels have not been set by the developer.

“They have expressed to us that it will reflect market rates – they have to compete with the other marinas here in town – and the rates will be similar to the other marinas here,” he said.

He added that traffic within the harbour has made it difficult to provide a safe place for the commercial fleet to discharge their harvest, which is why the port authority will be providing a modified space at the Assembly Wharf which will be accessible 24/7. A crane will no longer be provided, but fishermen will be able to bring in their own trucks with cranes aboard.

While the NPA is sensitive to the concerns of Snuneymuxw, Dumas said they are unable to undertake discussions relating to the treaty.

Dumas said the port authority was planning to arrange a meeting with commercial fishers within the next week. The lease agreement is expected to move ahead sometime late February, after the completion of an environmental review.