Tak­ing flight from Van­cou­ver


National Post (Latest Edition) - - FINANCIAL POST - Jeremy van loon

Three times a week Neil Val­sangkar es­capes Canada’s most ex­pen­sive real es­tate mar­ket by pay­ing $100 for a 20- minute float plane ride to his Van­cou­ver of­fice from his home across the Sal­ish Sea.

The 50 kilo­me­tre aerial com­mute al­lows the father of three to live in Nanaimo, B.C., where homes cost about a quar­ter of those in Van­cou­ver, one of the world’s froth­iest mar­kets with av­er­age homes sell­ing for $ 1.3 mil­lion. He’s en­cour­ag­ing some of his em­ploy­ees to do the same.

“Rais­ing a fam­ily in Van­cou­ver is re­ally chal­leng­ing lo­gis­ti­cally,” said the 50-yearold chief ex­ec­u­tive of Sun Coast Con­sult­ing Ltd. “I made a life­style choice be­cause of hous­ing and the ease of rais­ing a fam­ily here.”

Nanaimo, a f ormerly rough- and- tum­ble log­ging and fish­ing town of al­most 100,000 peo­ple on Van­cou­ver Is­land, of­fers the same stun­ning views of snow- capped moun­tains and rugged bays as its larger neigh­bour. With float planes tak­ing off for down­town Van­cou­ver sev­eral times an hour, a ve­hi­cle ferry, he­li­copter flights and a planned high- speed pas­sen­ger ser­vice, the com­mute across the Sal­ish Sea makes sense and can be shorter in some cases than com­mut­ing by car from Greater Van­cou­ver’s east­ern mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

The cost of own­ing a bun­ga­low in Van­cou­ver now ac­counts for 87 cents of ev­ery dol­lar earned by the av­er­age fam­ily. That has trig­gered protests by young pro­fes­sion­als who com­plain of hav­ing to bunk with room­mates into their 30s and forc­ing them to de­lay start­ing fam­i­lies. The pro­vin­cial govern­ment will be­gin col­lect­ing data on for­eign buy­ers who have been ac­cused of driv­ing up prices in the city of 2.5 mil­lion res­i­dents.

John Win­ter fled Canada’s most ex­pen­sive city six years ago, set­tling in Nanaimo with his wife af­ter strug­gling with Van­cou­ver’s sky-high cost of liv­ing. “I knew I’d never be able to af­ford a home there,” said Win­ter, 41, who runs Har­bour Air Ltd.’s Nanaimo op­er­a­tions. “The av­er­age house price in Van­cou­ver is out of ev­ery­one’s price range.”

De­spite its prox­im­ity to Van­cou­ver’s real es­tate frenzy, Nanaimo seems a world away. The town suf­fered a long, steady de­cline in the 1980s as lum­ber mills and fish­eries closed and govern­ment of­fices re­lo­cated. It’s al­ways been over­shad­owed by the bet­ter-known and larger Vic­to­ria, on the south­ern tip of Van­cou­ver Is­land, a Tai­wan- sized is­land with a frac­tion of its pop­u­la­tion — 750,000 ver­sus about 23 mil­lion.

“This was very much a fish­er­man’s town, a forestry town and had been a coal town,” said Ralph Nil­son, pres­i­dent of Van­cou­ver Is­land Univer­sity, a “hin­ter­land school” that’s help­ing to at­tract in­ter­est in Nanaimo with stu­dents from 88 coun­tries, many of whom end up buy­ing prop­erty, as part of the 2,000-stu­dent cam­pus.

The city, which sells it­self as a “so­lu­tion to Van­cou­ver’s af­ford­abil­ity and tran­sit chal­lenges,” is aim­ing to at­tract new busi­nesses and their em­ploy­ees, in ad­di­tion to peo­ple near­ing re­tire­ment age who want to re­al­ize prop­erty price gains in Van­cou­ver and down­size to Nanaimo, said John Hank­ins, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Nanaimo Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Corp.

A sin­gle fam­ily home av­er­ages $358,200, an in­crease of about seven per cent over the past five years com­pared with Van­cou­ver’s 57 per cent gain.

In ad­di­tion to be­com­ing a trans­porta­tion hub for Van­cou­ver Is­land, with a new cruise ship dock in one of Bri­tish Columbia’s deep­est ports and an air­port that has had five years of record pas­sen­ger growth, the town has a grow­ing tech­nol­ogy sec­tor.

The city’s lat­est plan is to start a high-speed pas­sen­ger ferry ser­vice and will re­quest bids later this year from pri­vate com­pa­nies to op­er­ate it. The trip would cost about $30 one way and take an hour from down­town to down­town.

“We’re re­ally an an­nex to Van­cou­ver,” said Bernie Du­mas, pres­i­dent of the Nanaimo Port Au­thor­ity. “We’re see­ing Nanaimo be­com­ing the back­yard of Van­cou­ver.”

Un­like other wa­ter­front cities such as Seat­tle and its nearby is­lands such as Va­chon and Bain­bridge, Van­cou­ver’s real es­tate boom has left prices in Nanaimo and other nearby towns on Van­cou­ver Is­land largely un­touched. For now, that has its ben­e­fits. Nanaimo’s laid-back vibe and quiet streets mean many of its work­ers walk to the of­fice in 15 min­utes, in­clud­ing stop­ping to buy a coffee.

Michael Reid, a 41-year for­mer Van­cou­ver res­i­dent who runs a tech­nol­ogy com­pany em­ploy­ing five peo­ple, strolls along the har­bour walk­way af­ter ar­riv­ing from Van­cou­ver on a float plane and walks back to his of­fice a few blocks away. His Van­cou­ver meet­ing was fin­ished be­fore noon and he was back in Nanaimo for lunch.

“Van­cou­ver might be more fun, but will you have the money to en­joy it?” he said. “As long as you can eas­ily get to Van­cou­ver when you need to, it’s not a prob­lem liv­ing here.”


The har­bour in Nanaimo of­fers recre­ational op­por­tu­ni­ties for fam­i­lies and a de­par­ture point for pro­fes­sion­als work­ing in Van­cou­ver.


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