Ladysmith has undergone cycles of growth and development over the years but not with so many key economic drivers pushing and pulling as they are in 2018.
Construction season got off to an auspicious start in April when nearby Nanaimo Regional Airport broke ground on a $15-million expansion project, an economic stimulus that will fuel other growth well into the future.
The airport has already set records for passenger volume over the last eight years with close to 400,000 people expected to pass through its gates this year.
“It’s called Nanaimo Regional Airport, but I always joke that it’s Ladysmith Airport,” said Ladysmith’s Mayor Aaron Stone, alluding to its proximity. As a business owner, he appreciates the shipping convenience.
“If I order something in the afternoon, I’ve got it the next morning,” Stone said in his downtown store.
That’s the sort of strategic advantage Ladysmith has in spades, starting with its location between the two largest economic centres on the Island, straddling the Island Highway and within easy travelling distance of the Lower Mainland.
Within the context of surging economic development on southern Vancouver Island, Ladysmith finds itself in the enviable position of being able to chart a course for balanced growth.
The guiding vision is to expand the tax base while maintaining qualities of life that residents rate so highly. It’s a vision laid out in the Ladysmith Economic Development Strategy presented to town council in September.
While challenges confront Ladysmith — they actually outnumber the strengths — the strategy points to assets, natural and built, that are key building blocks. These assets “position the town and the surrounding area as a leader in tourism development while opening the door to new residential, commercial and industry growth.”
A few figures help put the trend in context. New residents, mostly from elsewhere in B.C., are relocating to the area in significant numbers. Ladysmith is currently the third fastest growing municipality of its size in the province after Lake Country and Sechelt. In the last census period, the town’s population grew 5.9 percent to 8,537 in 2016. By 2017, the population was nudging 9,000, a jump of 25-30 percent since the turn of the century.
Over the last four years, building permits have steadily increased. The number of permits issued climbed from 81 in 2014 to 102 last year. This year could be on track to exceed that. Similarly, the value of construction overall climbed from $4.7 million four years ago to $11 million in 2017.
Another critical component in the economic strategy emphasizes is partnerships, the collaborative relationship Ladysmith has with Stz’uminus First Nation as well as with local and regional organizations. Nowhere is the Stz’uminus (SFN) connection more visible than at Four Corners at Oyster Bay, a growing gateway to Ladysmith just five minutes south of town.
Oyster Bay Liquor Store, which opened in September, is only the latest addition in a pace of development expected to double over the next two decades with SFN’s Coast Salish Development Corporation leading the process. Earlier additions to the Oyster Bay project include the Ladysmith and District Credit Union and an office complex now home to the First Nations Health Authority. In June, the 81-room Microtel opened its doors. Weekends were solidly booked through the summer, boosting the local tourism market.
Real estate activity in the area surged in 2017 before higher interest rates and the mortgage stress test took the sizzle out of sales of single-family homes, according to Vancouver Island Real Estate Board. Sales have dropped 32 per cent from last year, but the news isn’t necessarily bad since it will help to moderate what was a sellers’ market, keeping prices from soaring and preserving some of the affordability that adds to Ladysmith’s appeal.