Business and community leaders are expressing shock and confusion after Mayor Ken Sim’s office abruptly announced that it is shutting down the Vancouver Economic Commission (VEC), a local institution that has helped diversify and green the city’s economy since it formed in 1995.
The city announced September 22 that it would immediately “begin winding down and decommissioning” the VEC’s operations and reassigning its main functions to a new business and economy office under City Manager Paul Mochrie. “We’re focused on being business friendly at City Hall, which means delivering services and supports in the most seamless and efficient way possible for local businesses,” Sim said in a release.
Mochrie said the move would help the city “optimize” its business supports and coordinate efforts with Invest Vancouver, an economic development office established by the Metro Vancouver Regional District in 2019.
That didn’t begin to respond to the disappointment and dismay at the loss of a non-profit that has brought the city more than C$3 billion in investment in technology, film and TV production, and green economy businesses. Last week, 13 of the commission’s 23 staff and two of its three contractors learned they were out of a job.
“For decades, VEC has had a major role in advocating for Vancouver’s economic growth and interests, marketing its economic strengths to the global business community and foreign investors, and working with companies considering establishing a presence in the city,” Daily Hive reports. But the formation of Invest Vancouver four years ago “created some duplication between VEC and the new regional agency.
A city spokesperson told the Vancouver Sun that “financial efficiencies were a consideration contributing to this decision,” with savings estimated at $2 million per year.
But James Riley, CEO of local software company Lightspark, told the Sun the VEC provided a good return on investment. “Is it penny-wise and pound-foolish?” he asked. “You save two million bucks, great. But this was something that was stimulating the economy and attracting investment.” That included introducing Lightspark and local tech company Hootsuite to international contacts and investors.
Riley added that “every city has an economic commission… to stimulate economic growth,” and something unique about the VEC was that “it was a leader in the global climate leadership movement.”
But the VEC was also closely associated with Vision, the municipal party that held power in Vancouver from 2008 to 2018. With Sim’s ABC party now in control, Riley said he hoped that legacy wasn’t a factor in the decision to wind the commission down.
“If it’s being squashed for political reasons, that is a major mistake,” said Riley, who told the Sun he supported Sim in last year’s municipal election.
Shauna Sylvester, former executive director of the Simon Fraser University Centre for Dialogue, was sharply critical of the decision in a LinkedIn post earlier this week.
“No strategic review of VEC before it was dissolved,” she wrote. “No consultation with impacted businesses and partners. No clear description of how this move will deliver efficiency. No sense that the internal city staff have the international networks, the private sector understanding, or capacity to do the work of promoting creative, green, knowledge-based businesses. No strategic or business plan for what’s next.”
All of which prompted her to ask: “What part of the story are we missing? This seems very unaligned with Mayor Sim’s expressed values.”
The decision doesn’t make sense “because this is his constituency,” added Sylvester, now lead convenor at a new U.S. non-profit, Urban Climate Leadership. Sylvester ran against Sim and debated him in the 2018 mayoralty race, but said she’s never before critiqued him publicly.
“He sees himself as a tech guy and a small business and green business guy,” she told The Energy Mix. The staff now leaving the commission are “really incredibly skilled people with huge networks globally, and this is a mayor who was elected on a positive business agenda.”
As for any collisions with Invest Vancouver, as an organization serving multiple Metro Vancouver municipalities, the VEC “also shared its work regionally,” she added.
When she first heard the news, just six minutes before a scheduled meeting with commission staff, “my mouth dropped. I had to walk around the house a bit before I could even breathe,” Sylvester recalled. “It’s not a perfect organization. No organization is. But this has been the driver for diversifying the Vancouver economy, and it’s been very successful in doing that.” The commission has been “the convenor, the promoter, the door opener, the research, the data for the green economy, the creative economy, the film industry, I could go on,” all helping the city diversify its economy out of its earlier dependence on extractive industries.
The news has prompted concern that Vancouver is deliberately dismantling local infrastructure that was helping to build its green economy.
“VEC has a long track record of important work, particularly related to attracting investment in green jobs and supporting local advancements in the circular economy, clean tech, and the green economy,” Councillor Christine Boyle, a member of the local OneCity party, told The Mix in an email. “VEC has played an important role in Vancouver’s leadership in these areas.”
Now, she said, “I’m worried that the focus on climate and the green economy will be lost under this new Council direction. Which, given growing global interest in green jobs and a climate resilient economy, would be a huge loss for Vancouver residents and businesses.”
CityHive Executive Director Rowan Gentleman-Sylvester said the VEC helped thousands of local youth find employment in the green economy, film and TV, the tech sector, or business.
“The jobs they have attracted to the region supported young people to find well-paying and meaningful work in a sometimes challenging job market,” she said in an email. “Their team has also built deep relationships and connections to community organizations like ours. VEC staff have acted as advisors, mentors, and networkers—connecting us with partners and funders we would never have otherwise had access to.”
VEC staff worked closely with CityHive’s climate innovation program, “helping us to identify emerging trends in the green economy and working directly with program participants on projects related to green retrofits, and attitudes towards the trades,” Gentleman-Sylvester wrote. Now, “I’m curious to see how the City Manager’s office will address the gap in services to young entrepreneurs and workers that will be created when VEC no longer exists in this space.” The information available from the city so far “leaves me wondering what position the transition to a clean and just economy will play in this new framework.”
In a letter to city council posted on LinkedIn, veteran sustainable business strategist Coro Strandberg echoed the sense of loss and dismay at losing an institution that played “a unique and indispensable role to build a sustainable future for Vancouver businesses, industry, and Vancouverites—and through its example, cities and economic development agencies around the world.” As a VEC stakeholder and former advisory board member, she wrote, “I am left with the impression that the City didn’t consult VEC’s partners, funders, beneficiaries, and ecosystem collaborators on its decision to dissolve the VEC. I find this puzzling given Vancouver is known for its reputation in stakeholder consultation and collaboration.”
Strandberg added that it’s “simplistic to think that Invest Vancouver can assume the responsibilities of the former VEC given the complicated nature of multi-municipal collaboration. With the disbandment of VEC, the City of Vancouver loses its ability to envision and accelerate progress on a sustainable future for business and citizens—at a time when we need this leadership more than ever.”
Some observers are asking whether a catalyst for shuttering the VEC was Sim’s new communications director, Hamilton Fleming, whose resumé includes past jobs with former prime minister Stephen Harper, former Alberta premier Jason Kenney, Alberta’s United Conservative Party caucus, and Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce. When Sim hired him, after an election pledge to “limit partisan activity from mayoral office staff,” The Tyee said Fleming had acquired “a record of playing rough” while he was in Alberta, but “softened his approach” when he worked in Ontario.
Fleming did not return a message requesting comment on the VEC announcement. But Wes Regan, a population health policy specialist and director emeritus of Simon Fraser’s community economic development program, said the public deserves an explanation.
“Without a clear and convincing rationale regarding the decision, or a process to engage with civic institutions, industries, and others connected to its work before it was announced, many of us can’t help but think the action seems almost prejudicial and vindictive in nature,” Regan wrote. He called it “the culmination of years of agitated backroom discussions with the city’s old guard business elites who still believe Vancouver is simply a mining and forestry corporate headquarters town, and that economic development priorities should reflect the colonial past of its extractive sunset industries who still take up sizeable floor space in its downtown skyscrapers and sizeable airspace in conservative political discourse.”
Regan speculated that the VEC “may now be paying for sins against the old guard business elite” like promoting green development and opposing the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
But even if it’s a faint hope, Sylvester said it isn’t too late for Sim to walk back a devastating decision. “If [Ontario Premier] Doug Ford can reverse on the Greenbelt, Ken can come out shining,” she said.