Nanaimo newsmakers

NANAIMO – These people and organizations made what we thought was the biggest impact on Nanaimo’s social and economic fronts.

The Nanaimo News Bulletin takes a look back at the people and the organizations that made the news in 2014.

Nanaimo never has a shortage of newsmakers from year to year, and 2014 was no different.

In early December, the newsroom at the News Bulletin drafted a list of the people who made headlines in the previous year, then proceeded to whittle that list down to the top five for the year: B.C. Ferries, Bill McKay, Jeff Lott and the B.C. Summer Games committee, Stephanie Higginson and the Save Cedar Schools organization, and Tilray. These people and organizations made, what we thought was the biggest impact on Nanaimo’s social and economic fronts which will continue for years to come.

We thought it important to mention two others who influenced policy in Nanaimo in 2014: Jeff Solomon and former mayor John Ruttan.

Solomon was again at the head of the Save Colliery Dam Preservation Society, as he helped draft a solution to the dam issue before walking out on the technical committee when the solution failed to meet his group’s expectations. Solomon was involved with Progressive Nanaimo, a political organization that aimed to get like-minded candidates elected in November’s municipal election, including himself as trustee for Nanaimo school board.

Solomon will continue to be part of decisions that affect the community in 2015 as the city makes a final decision on remediation of the Colliery dams and the school board sets out to manage construction and renovation of new facilities as well as balancing the budget.

As mayor of Nanaimo, Ruttan took a leadership role in major projects in the city, including the conference centre hotel, a fast foot ferry from downtown Nanaimo to Vancouver, purchase of Linley Valley parkland and rezoning of the medical marijuana facility at Duke Point.

Aside from the park purchase, the remaining major projects will carry through into another year and another civic administration. After defeat in November’s election, Ruttan leaves these projects to new Mayor Bill McKay and city council.

– Melissa Fryer, managing editor

McKay captures mayor’s chair

Bill McKay emerged as Nanaimo’s 25th mayor after the dust settled in one of the biggest battles for the top job the city has seen in three decades, ranking him as one of the top newsmakers of the year.

McKay beat nine challengers in the race for the mayoral seat in the 2014 civic election – considered to be the largest race since 1982. The first-time councillor, known for opposing a controversial decision to cancel a live leadership simulcast, won the seat with 30 per cent of the vote, beating out campaign rival Bill Holdom by more than 2,000 ballots. He also unseated two-term mayor John Ruttan.

The win felt “a wee bit surreal” for McKay, but that hasn’t stopped the new mayor from encouraging his council to join an effort to set a new course or pledge action, from a program and services review to finding a resolution for the Colliery dams before the end of February. He plans to work on  recommendations for committee appointments over council’s winter break, and intends to do a restructuring with new committees in areas of protective services, public works and labour management.

McKay said he’s getting used to his new role, although still has trouble being addressed as “your worship.”

“Just call me Bill,” he said. “That’s just fine.”

– Tamara CunninghamSchedule changes, route cuts created headlines for B.C Ferries

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for B.C. Ferries in 2014.

Service cuts and a terminal closure scare made the ferries corporation one of the newsmakers of the year in Nanaimo.

The ferries had only just departed on 2014 when Gabriola Island residents could be heard protesting sailing cuts, announced a few weeks earlier. B.C. Ferries’ plan was to eliminate early-morning and late-night sailings on the Nanaimo-Descanso Bay route, creating concern for commuters. The issue remained unsettled over the months that followed. In February, provincial Transportation Minister Todd Stone suggested there might be “wiggle room” concerning the proposed sailing schedule, and island residents demanded as much, taking their protest to the front lawn of the B.C. legislature in March. In April the revised plan was revealed, and Gabriolans got to keep their most-essential commuter sailings, sacrificing only some mid-day runs.

“The outcome is a schedule that we believe meets the vast majority of essential needs but still delivers the government’s savings target,” said John Hodgkins, Gabriola Ferry Advisory Committee chairman. “We recognize, however, that the new schedule will not suit everyone.”

The year’s major ferry flap happened in the fall, when B.C. Ferries released an efficiency strategy calling for the possible closure of the Departure Bay Terminal.

Stone initially said the idea was worth considering, but a day later he recanted, after a whirlwind of opposition, including from his fellow Liberal MLAs.

“They’ve made some very strong and eloquent arguments to me that they don’t believe closing one of the two terminals at Nanaimo would be a good thing [for] the economy of the mid-Island,” Stone said.

Though the document no longer has the ministry’s stamp of approval, it will continue to be examined by the B.C. Ferries commissioner and could lead to other efficiency strategies.

B.C. Ferries also made news in 2014 for its fuel surcharge, introduced in January and eliminated this month; and for its bid to install a prominent LED sign at the Departure Bay terminal, scuttled by neighbours’ complaints.

– Greg Sakaki

Medical pot producer expands

Corporate growth took on new meaning when Tilray began medical marijuana production at Duke Point.

The Health Canada-approved facility, owned by parent company Privateer Holdings, cost more than $10 million to construct and, at startup in March, employed about 60 locally hired people. Everything from Tilray’s call-in centre to growing, cutting, packaging and shipping product is contained within the facility.

Its first shipment of legally grown medicinal marijuana was couriered to clients in May.

A legalized commercial marijuana production facility proposed for Duke Point drew its share of controversy – mostly over site zoning and taxation until the B.C. government decided federally licensed medical marijuana operations do not qualify for farm tax status – but even local law enforcement gave Tilray the nod after reviewing company security measures, which included a state-of-the-art security system using the same technology as the U.S. Pentagon.

Tilray recruited Jake Ryan, former head of Nanaimo RCMP’s Criminal Intelligence Division, to manage its security.

By summer the company was producing 25 strains of medicinal bud to treat physical ailments and in November announced a partnership with the University of British Columbia Okanagan to conduct Canada’s first clinical trial on marijuana’s effectiveness for treating post-traumatic stress disorder. Tilray will supply about $50,000 worth of product for the trial.

Throughout the year, construction carried out within the company’s Duke Point facility to double its production capacity and by the end of November had hired about 100 employees.

In December city council approved Tilray’s application to have three adjacent properties on Maughan Road in the Duke Point Industrial Park rezoned for marijuana production. Tilray has started the permitting and regulatory approval process to expand beyond its current 5,600-square metre building and construct a new 26,500-square metre production facility. The expansion could mean an additional 275 jobs.

A construction start date is yet to be announced.

– Chris Bush

Save Cedar Schools coalition propels Higginson to board

While Stephanie Higginson and the Save Cedar Schools Coalition made headlines in 2013 by voicing opposition to the high school closure, they made more of a splash in 2014.

The coalition opposed closure of Cedar Community Secondary School, part of the school district’s 10-year facilities plan, and three of its members – spokesman Steve Rae, Stephanie Higginson and Scott Kimler – threw their names in for November’s municipal election.

Higginson listed a thorough review of the facilities plan as one of her priorities during the campaign.

Among the issues, she said the project to convert Cedar secondary into an elementary school was costing “… more than double the estimate and the school will house half as many students as forecast. That is twice as much money for half as many students,” she said.

When ballots were tallied on election night, the three were among the top vote getters, with Higginson garnering the most (9,545 votes), Kimler in second with 8,490 and Rae fourth with 7,270.  Only two trustees from the previous board were re-elected: Jamie Brennan and Bill Robinson.

At the inaugural meeting of the new board, Higginson was elected as both board vice-chairwoman and education committee chairwoman. Rae was chosen chairman of the board and Kimler, chairman of the business committee.

The newly elected school board recently approved a motion temporarily halting construction and contract tendering related to the school for 30 days, during which time it will take stock of where the project is at. No decision has been made about the fate of the school, said Rae.

Based on their impact on the election, Higginson and the Save Cedar Schools Coalition are among the News Bulletin’s top newsmakers of 2014.

– Karl Yu

Lott’s leadership sees successful Summer Games

For four fun days this summer, Nanaimo was the Harbour City, Hub City and host city.

The B.C. Summer Games was a memorable event in 2014 and Jeff Lott, president of the Nanaimo Games, and his organizing committee earned a place atop the podium.

The actual sports and spectacle of the Summer Games came and went within a week, but the scope was far greater. The planning and preparation was years in the making, and the legacy includes an estimated $2 million economic impact and immeasurable spirit and goodwill.

Lott led a board of 14 directors, who in turn oversaw 125 chairmen and chairwomen, who were assisted by 3,000 volunteers.

“Which we needed to make this event happen at the level that it did happen,” said Lott.

He heard anecdotes of hotels all booked up for that week in mid-July, and heard about all the out-of-town shoppers, and about tourists making the B.C. Summer Games one part of an extended Vancouver Island vacation.

As for the Games themselves, they were everywhere in Nanaimo for those four days. The 3,000 athletes, plus coaches, officials, families and fans filled venues from Duncan to Parksville, competing in 22 different sports. Many hundreds of teens made medal memories.

One of the best things about the Games, said Lott, is how they brought people together. So many segments of the city showed at the B.C. Summer Games that they’re good sports.

“I can’t say it enough – we couldn’t have done it without the support of the local business, and the commitment of our volunteers here,” said Lott. “They really did a fantastic job and made the community proud.”

– Greg Sakaki

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