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In 2002 a group of business leaders and community advocates, inspired by the desire to have more impact on the working harbour, came together to form Greater Victoria Harbour Authority. Almost 20 years later, the GVHA contributes more than $130 million annually to the region’s economy.

Q+A with the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority

The GVHA owns and operates 110 acres of land in Victoria’s harbourfront, including Breakwater District at Ogden Point, Fisherman’s Wharf, Ship Point, four Inner Harbour marinas, the customs dock at Raymur Point and the historic Steamship Terminal.

The breadth of their holdings and work means they’re connected both to the ocean economy and the tourism industry. Locals interact with GVHA through the Breakwater District, while downtown businesses receive the thousands of cruise ship passengers that pass through the city (when cruise ship season is in effect).

The GVHA see themselves as champions and stewards of their marine and land assets, and this fall will be bringing together 18 local stakeholders, representing member agencies, First Nations and community partners for their new Community Liaison Committee. Its mandate is to advise on and support continuous improvement and triple-bottom line sustainability throughout GVHA operations. 

GVHA joined SIPP in 2017. Ian Robertson, the organization’s CEO, talks about their work and how it contributes to our region’s economic growth. 

Ian Robertson, CEO, GVHA

Why did you join South Island Prosperity Partnership?

We joined SIPP because I saw in their mandate the opportunity to help contribute to the future economic sustainability of the region. Victoria is a very collaborative city and each of the business leaders in our region play an important role in stimulating growth, encouraging investment, welcoming entrepreneurs, and supporting positive change.  

What do you see as key to growing a resilient, robust economic future for our region? 

Everything in this region should be focused on sustainable growth with a triple bottom-line lens. As we grow our economic base, we must ensure that our economic, environmental, and social and cultural efforts are equal. The days of measuring growth only through profit and loss statements are long since behind us.

What is our region’s secret sauce when it comes to competing internationally to attract quality talent, businesses with household sustaining jobs, and investment?

I firmly believe that it is our relationship to the Pacific Ocean and our Island location. We’re surrounded by water and with that comes opportunity. This region is special in its geography and its people. The special sauce is our oceanfront location mixed with a group of business leaders who are not afraid of big, bold ideas for what will make our region unbeatable. 

What are you most excited about in terms of your own organization’s plans and potential?

I am most excited about continuing our focus on improvement and growth for the long-term viability of the working harbour. Our recent economic impact study, completed with several harbour partners, indicated that the Victoria Harbour and Esquimalt Harbour generated $2.9 billion in economic output across Greater Victoria in 2019. 

While cruise tourism contributes $143 million to the regional economy, the community assets we own and steward, such as the Ogden Point Breakwater and Inner Harbour Lower Causeway, provide benefits to the community as spaces to gather. 

What’s one thing about your organization you really want people to know that they probably don’t know?

Perhaps the most common refrain I have is that we are a community based, not-for-profit organization. While we maintain a high profile through our operations at The Breakwater District at Ogden Point, Fisherman’s Wharf and throughout the Inner Harbour, our business is set up to ensure that the revenue we generate is reinvested directly back into our harbourfront assets. 

What challenges are you most invested in helping our community overcome and why?

We have five guiding principles that ensure we maintain a healthy organization and fulfill our mandate of being stewards for a working harbour. Within these five principles, our triple bottom-line approach and our First Nations relationships are areas of focus and opportunity.

I have a long-term goal of making our cruise terminal the greenest in North America. There is a lot of work to be done and some of that work is beyond our scope or influence; thanks to our financial model we can pursue projects that help improve sustainability and enhance our social contributions to the region. The highest profile project is getting shore power to the terminal, which will require investment from levels of government and industry but is something we are committed to doing. 

Our relationship with local First Nations goes back to our formation as a society in 2002. At that time, the Esquimalt Nation and Songhees Nation were two of our founding Member Agencies and representatives from both Nations have been on our board since inception. We truly value this relationship and continue to support the economic and cultural opportunities they are exploring and creating across our properties. 

What lessons have most profoundly impacted you since the pandemic sent shockwaves through our community and economy?

When COVID-19 arrived in Canada, it impacted our entire organization. Cruise represents 70% of our annual revenues, and as a not-for-profit, that impact to our bottom line meant the cancellation and postponement of capital investment, temporary and permanent layoffs, and deferring investment with partner organizations. 

We remained strong because we focused on the concept of ‘plan your work and work that plan’. We had a crisis communications and operations plan that guided us in the beginning, and then quickly developed a recovery plan to help move us through the subsequent waves of the pandemic. We’re now in the final steps of our three-year business plan for 2022-2025, which will focus on a return to a new normal. The path ahead is unclear, but we’ve spent time charting our course. 

Two other lessons came out of the pandemic: communicate often and openly with your staff, customers and stakeholders. Never believe that you’re doing enough to share your message, but instead repeat it across as many platforms as possible. The other lesson was to advocate for support. Thanks to our collaborative approach to business, we were joined by other community and business partners in our advocacy to levels of government for a plan for the return of cruise in 2022. We also lent our voice to their efforts for continued funding supports across the entire visitor economy. No one was alone in their challenges, and we were in it together in our advocacy. 

When you envision the South Island region in 2040, what will have changed? What does our future look like?

I envision a continued focus on triple bottom-line sustainability that will allow this region to set itself apart and provide a value proposition that is difficult to match. The region will be vibrant and consist of a diverse community with various types of ocean-related, tourism, and tech businesses that create a strong economic base. It will continue to be a place that provides a warm and unique welcome to visitors from around the world.