Viewpoint: The future of city-owned lands in Powell River

Coronavirus news has eclipsed almost all other news stories, but it is critical we don’t lose sight of important local issues.

Recently, The Peak reported that the City of Powell River is applying for funds to hire a firm to create a strategy for selling city-owned property [“City of Powell River applies to fund property strategy,” April 26]

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A welcome aspect of the announcement is that council intends to consult with the public about future development. Public consultation regarding sales of publicly-owned properties has not always been one of council’s goals.

Currently, the city is holding several tracts of land because of its 2006 decision to get involved in PRSC, a limited partnership set up by Powell River (PR), Tla’amin Nation (S) and Catalyst Paper Corporation (C) to sell land and promote economic development. Protests were held objecting to PRSC’s secrecy [Peak, March 2006], but as one former city councillor put it, since PRSC was a private entity the public didn’t have a right to consultation [Peak, November 2006].

The original goals for PRSC were for Catalyst to rid itself of land not needed by the mill and stop paying taxes on it. Tla’amin and the city had high expectations for PRSC-generated economic development but most of their projects were never realized.

Catalyst got what it wanted out of PRSC, but arguably the city and Tla’amin did not. Most of the properties were in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), where development is subject to strict regulation, and didn’t sell.

During PRSC’s 12-year lifetime, its financial statements were unavailable to the public. Recently, however, the city allowed me access to them. They revealed that with millions of dollars at stake, PRSC went unaudited for its last 10 years of operation including when it dissolved in 2018.

Of the close to $8.5 million in land sales revenue on the books when PRSC closed, less than $1 million was from sales to the private sector. The remaining $7.5 million was either sold or distributed (transferred without any money changing hands) to the PRSC shareholders themselves - the city or Tla’amin.

To summarize, PRSC bought the lands from Catalyst, paid the taxes and expenses on them and later sold most of them back to their own shareholders (themselves) for a higher price, and then claimed a profit. In fact, PRSC was consistently losing money until 2018 when the shareholders acquired most of PRSC’s lands.

The statements show about $800,000 in miscellaneous PRSC expenses over and above the costs to make its sales. And that doesn’t include all of the city’s costs related to PRSC. After 12 years, the city was left with a $1.4 million debt and a land bank of hard-to-sell properties that aren’t providing any tax revenue.

The Peak article mentions there may be more land development partnerships in the future, and recently Tla’amin has used PRSC’s so-called success as a model to create nine limited partnerships. These partnerships have been promoted in Powell River and Tla’amin as a means to avoid political interference in economic decisions due to their arm’s length status from elected government.

However, the PRSC experience suggests that what the public gets instead is a lack of transparency and accountability. An evaluation of PRSC’s performance should be considered when strategizing on future city land sales.

Pat Martin is a Powell River resident.

Copyright © Powell River Peak

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