Industrial lands strategy is key to the region’s economic health

Across all levels of government, the focus for the past few months has been on fighting COVID-19 and getting front-line workers what they need to do their important work, and rightly so.

As we move to restart B.C.’s economy, we need to focus on rebuilding our economy but also addressing long-held challenges that, if left unchecked, will erode our collective prosperity. One of these challenges is the availability and protection of industrial and trade-enabling lands that support good paying jobs. Later this week, the Metro Vancouver Industrial Land Task Force will be considering an industrial lands strategy for the region, and we encourage all members to take swift action.

While there has been much ink spilled regarding Canada-wide low vacancy rates in Greater Vancouver for rental units, and rightly so, what is less understood is that our industrial and job-supporting lands face a similar crisis. Colliers International estimates that the industrial market’s vacancy rate was 1.4% in the fourth quarter of 2019, a record low. While COVID-19 may have brought some short-term impacts, construction activity continues to ramp up. New supply is quickly snapped up, and rental rates are rapidly increasing. 

The challenges are familiar to our region: a lack of available and suitable land, pressure to convert to other uses and a complex jurisdictional landscape with no cohesive government strategy.

The industrial lands strategy identifies four big moves and 10 priority actions to address those challenges. Some examples of policies recommended include:

•Establishing greater consistency in local zoning – about time.

•Exploring mixed-use and denser industrial redevelopment, especially near transit, so more jobs can be on one site – yes and yes.

•Encouraging municipalities to be proactive and help bring new sites to market – a breath of fresh air.

•Co-ordinating strategies for economic growth and investment – we can dream.

One entity leading the charge for change is the Port of Vancouver, and it is no wonder why. The port has outperformed other North American ports over the past 30 years and is the largest and most diversified port in Canada. Even during a pandemic, the hard work by terminals, union workers, rail lines and waterfront workers has led to an increase in year-over-year cargo volumes of 1% as of the end of April. But the port needs trade-enabling land to maintain growth.

None of the actions proposed is a panacea, but collectively they can move the dial in the right direction.

The stakes are high. Despite making up just 4% of the region’s land, industrial sites are home to nearly a quarter of the region’s jobs. In the City of Vancouver alone, the Vancouver Economic Commission estimates that there were 60,000 full-time jobs at industrial businesses. As cash-strapped governments re-emerge from the crisis, they should be mindful of the nearly $9 billion in government revenue per year derived from employment on these lands.

Our current reality has increased our awareness and appreciation of front-line workers: nurses, care aids, clerks and janitors. Similarly, it has drawn attention to the need to maintain the fluidity of global supply chains, while supporting current and future increases in local capacity and production. To do this, it will require action to protect and optimize land use in our region. 

We applauded when Metro Vancouver launched the Industrial Lands Strategy Task Force. As the strategy moves toward a vote, we call on local and regional governments to work collaboratively with each other and businesses to adopt and implement the recommendations.

Provincial and federal governments will similarly need to redouble their efforts and examine their role in protecting industrial land. Taking action now, and maintaining momentum, will ensure that our region can foster economic growth, build more resilience into supply chains and provide the revenue governments will need to assist in the recovery. • 

Bridgitte Anderson is the president and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade.