It started with a conversation between local business leaders in 1861. Today, over 150 years later, the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce is one of the pre-eminent business associations on Vancouver Island, with a 1400-strong membership.
Q+A with the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce
The Chamber spawned the B.C. Chamber of Commerce and Trade and helped establish the New Westminster and Vancouver Boards of Trade. It also played an important role in the birth of our organization, SIPP, and helped initiate the South Island Film Commission and Destination Greater Victoria.
The organization’s advocacy efforts for investment and policies are visible in many of our landmarks and businesses, including the Fairmont Empress, shipbuilding, ferry service, airport, the University of Victoria, E&N Rail and the first parking garage in Victoria. When the pandemic hit, the Chamber adapted its work to meet the challenge, creating new programs and marketing initiatives to promote business awareness and stimulate economic activity, and turning its annual Flower Count into a virtual Flower Bouquet sent across the country as a reminder that “we’re all in this together.”
As the CEO of the Chamber, Bruce Williams has a bird’s eye view of what business owners are facing as we continue forging our way out of the pandemic. He shares his insights on what’s needed for a healthy, vibrant business community in Greater Victoria.
Why did you join South Island Prosperity Partnership?
SIPP began as a committee of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce and was launched by the Chamber originally as the Greater Victoria Development Agency. I served on that committee and subsequently was a member of the inaugural board to create the framework, governance, bylaws and budget for what became SIPP.
What do you see as key to growing a resilient, robust economic future for our region?
Diversifying the economy by making sure we’re open to new opportunities will continue to be important. We are building a reputation as a region that is open for business. We need to welcome immigration and create a more inclusive workforce.
What is our region’s secret sauce when it comes to competing internationally to attract quality talent, businesses with household sustaining jobs, and investment?
This is pretty simple on the surface. It’s no secret that people who visit our region fall in love with it and want to move here. We need a healthy tourism industry to help more people discover Greater Victoria. However, where things get more complicated is making sure people are able to stay here. This is the business case for ensuring we are an affordable community. More housing is vital, but also the right type of housing for people needed to do the work that makes a community great. We need teachers, police officers, nurses, hospitality workers and they need to be able to find good homes conveniently located to their jobs. We offer exceptional quality of life with a world-class small city, and proximity to nature and the Pacific Ocean. We also have post-secondary institutions. We need more investments that will enable our region to be seen as an attractive place for families of all shapes and sizes to put down roots.
What are you most excited about in terms of your own organization’s plans and potential?
During the pandemic, our vision as an organization really gave us direction. It was something our members rallied around and helped us in our role as a community leader. That vision is focused on the value we place in embracing diversity. It helps us better support our members by advocating for innovation and inclusion for all.
What’s one thing about your organization you really want people to know that they probably don’t know?
Our Chamber Benefits program helps many of our members provide health benefits to their employees. I think a lot of people are also surprised to learn about the Chamber’s long history and how much of a role we’ve played in the development of Greater Victoria.
What challenges are you most invested in helping our community overcome and why?
Finding and keeping workers. So much of our advocacy work stems from the challenge employers are having attracting and retaining staff. We need to solve our affordable housing crisis, and we need to ensure our communities remain safe and vibrant places to live and work. I also really enjoy connecting businesses, especially when it comes to creating opportunities for inclusiveness. We want Indigenous entrepreneurs and business owners from diverse backgrounds to feel connected to our business community. We also need our region to have the tools to fully participate in the global economy.
What lessons have most profoundly impacted you since the pandemic sent shockwaves through our community and economy?
We’re going through a generational challenge that has affected every single person. We’re going through it together and I think, by and large, we’ve seen a triumph of the human spirit. People have chosen kindness and compassion and genuinely care for each other. Living on an island, we’ve also seen how fragile our supply chains are. There are lessons here to build greater resilience, especially around food security.
When you envision the South Island region in 2040, what will have changed? What does our future look like?
I think we’re getting a better sense of how our ways of thinking are evolving into the 21st century. The climate is central to everything and business is meeting the demands of a public that is greener and protecting the environment is a mainstream priority. Greater Victoria is becoming more diverse and we’re seeing that reflected on the Chamber board and in our membership. We need more effective regional transportation options, more affordable housing and safer communities and I believe we can achieve these by 2040.