Over the past three years, Powell River has seen a steady increase in Chinese investment. Businesses such as Rodmay Hotel, Marine Inn and Gourmet Canton restaurant have all been purchased by foreign investors. New businesses have started up as well.
Recently established Hummingbird Cove, when running at full capacity, will be one of the largest land-based aquaculture facilities in North America.
According to City of Powell River mayor Dave Formosa, that is all good news for a town where he sees the local economy starting to turn around.
International education developments are also a familiar topic in the community. In regard to Sino Bright, Formosa said the city and school are just waiting for the Agricultural Land Commission to release its decision on 30 acres of land.
“Any day now,” said Formosa. “They’ve made their decision; we’re just waiting for the report.”
On top of Sino Bright creating a 400-student campus in Townsite for Chinese students enrolled in the province’s offshore school, there is also potential for establishing a satellite campus of a private Chinese university in Wildwood. Starium Developments, owned by Shih-tao Lu, owner of Eton College in Vancouver, is looking to expand its partnership with Vancouver Island University by adding a campus in Powell River.
Formosa explained that eight years ago the former mayor of Cumberland, Fred Bates, invited him and a group of local government officials from northern Vancouver Island communities to pick up on a relationship he had been working to develop. Chinese sister-city relationships, the concept of local governments looking to entice foreign investors from China, was a novel idea.
Before he was elected to office, Formosa worked in economic development and made it his goal to help improve Powell River’s outlook. He was one of the founding directors of Powell River Regional Economic Development Society (PRREDS) and sat on the board of the Sliammon Development Corporation.
Formosa said one of his primary reasons for running for office was to try to help Powell River transition through its tough economic times. As the tax burden has shifted from Catalyst Paper Corporation to property owners over the years, a move hotly debated in the community, the city is having difficulty maintaining service levels.
Formosa said that at its current population, the city is not sustainable. To reach economic sustainability the mayor said another 7,000 people need to move to Powell River. Regional economic development and resident attraction programs are specifically designed to do just that.
While Formosa was not making progress working with other mayors and city councils trying to drum foreign investment up, it was connections closer to home that helped him take the next step.
School District 47 superintendent Jay Yule had served as president of PRREDS and it was Yule who helped the mayor gain a fuller understanding of international education, particularly with respect to Chinese students.
It was when Lu returned to Powell River and Tla’amin Nation four years later, still interested in buying land for a variety of developments, that Formosa had his first chance to travel to China to start making business contacts.
“While there I was able to meet all these people,” said Formosa. “One of our pillars, and still is today, is education.”
Through those connections, Formosa was able to help foster sister-city relationships with Chinese cities Zhonghe and Dalian and those in turn have helped develop further connections.
While in the middle of establishing those relationships, Formosa first met Alex Liao. That was three years ago.
“We work together as much as we can,” said Formosa.
Liao is a licensed immigration consultant. He owns Vancouver-based CACNEX, a firm that helps Chinese entrepreneurs purchase small- to medium-sized businesses, primarily in BC, but also throughout the rest of Canada and in Washington State. Liao said his clients are mostly referred to him through other clients.
About half of Liao’s clients are entrepreneurs looking to purchase businesses for the purpose of applying for permanent residence in Canada, while the other half are looking to invest in hotels, resorts and wineries and other tourism-related businesses, said Liao. They do so through BC Provincial Nominee Program’s entrepreneur stream, one of Canada’s most popular foreign investor programs. The Government of Canada previously ran a federal investment immigration program but it was shut down. In its place, provinces were given the responsibility to develop their own programs.
Liao said the provincial program encourages investors to look outside of Metro Vancouver for opportunities.
Formosa said Powell River has an appeal for a certain type of investor.
“The majority of investors are looking for the big city, more Chinese people and culture, but there’s another segment of the population that wants peace, quiet and clean air,” said Formosa.
He added that Powell River’s safety, good environment for raising children and peaceful lifestyles are probably the same reasons why anyone would choose to live here.
Liao has been working in the field for the past 10 years and has worked with several municipal and regional district governments trying to help his clients, but he said his best experience has been with the City of Powell River.
Liao brings clients to Powell River every month to meet with the mayor, he said. So far he has helped with the sale of the Rodmay Hotel, Gourmet Canton and a resort near Lund. Liao added that he is currently working on a deal that would provide Hummingbird Cove with an additional $2.5 million in investment.
“We have the strongest support from Powell River,” said Liao. “Dave is very open-minded for business.”
Formosa said working with Liao has given him the opportunity to meet people and complete an informal vetting process.
“Before I provide a letter of support we want to know they are actually coming here to be a part of the community and not just trying to buy their way in,” said Formosa. “I’ve refused some letters.”
Liao said that while he does not own a home in Powell River, he plans to in the future and already considers himself a resident.