Brent Clancy, president of the Cowichan Lake District Chamber of Commerce, takes down the signs at the Lake Cowichan Visitor Centre, which closed its doors for good on Jan. 31. (Robert Barron/Citizen)

UPDATED: Mayor looking forward to future possibilities as Lake Cowichan Visitor Centre closes

In short, the Chamber is blaming the Town of Lake Cowichan.

It’s the end of the line for the Cowichan Lake District Chamber of Commerce-run Lake Cowichan Visitor Centre.

The little tourist info facility by Saywell Park is closing its doors for good on Jan. 31 as the money to run it has all dried up.

“It is with deep regret and sadness that the Cowichan Lake District Chamber of Commerce board must announce to the Town of Lake Cowichan that it can no longer operate the Visitor Centre on South Shore Road due to lack of funding,” said a letter from the Cowichan Lake District Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors on Friday afternoon.

The Visitor Centre has been a fixture along South Shore Road since 2005, serving 395,287 people in that time.

“As one might expect, the Visitor Centre’s largest expense is wages. Last year we employed one full time coordinator and seven youth from our community through the Canada Summer Jobs program,” said the letter. “Since 2016 our main input cost, wages, has increased by 48 per cent. Other expenses have also increased with inflation. For example, the minimum wage rate B.C. has increased from $10.25 in 2016 to $15.20/hr come June 1, 2021.”

The Chamber release went on to say that the service contract ran out on Dec. 31, 2020 and while the directors of Areas I, F, and the Town of Lake Cowichan knew the financial situation that the Visitor Centre was facing, the Town of Lake Cowichan was not prepared to agree to increase funding.

The move perplexed the Chamber, which said they were led to believe their funding would come through.

“The Chamber has continued to staff the Visitor Centre during January under the assumption that additional funding would be provided. The stakeholders agreed to as much in a Zoom call, scheduled after the November mayoral race. During that Zoom meeting, Area F representative Ian Morrison indicated the additional required funds would be met from his area and he believed Area I would be on board as well,” said the Chamber letter. “The Town’s representative, Mayor Bob Day, also indicated that an increase in funding made sense and confirmation would be given after the town’s next financial meeting. We discussed long term options for funding and it appeared that an informal deal was in the works.”

But when the contract for services was sent to the Chamber, not only was it non-negotiable, it included no increases in funding or expense liabilities and even more “unfavorable clauses,” said the letter.

In short, the Chamber is blaming the Town of Lake Cowichan.

“It would appear that through willful ignorance or conscious intent the Town of Lake Cowichan has acted in bad faith,” said the Chamber letter. “We reject any notion by town council or councillors that they were caught off guard by our requests as the Chamber has been raising these funding issues since 2016 when Ross Forrest was mayor. Unfortunately, the responsibility of the Visitor Centre’s abrupt closure rests solely on the Town of Lake Cowichan.”

Lake Cowichan Mayor Bob Day said he wasn’t able to participate in the council discussions on the matter but “as mayor I support my town council colleagues’ resolution that informed the content of the draft agreement presented to the Chamber board of directors that was in turn rejected.”

Day explained that a lot of the discussion took place behind closed doors due to sensitive information.

“In matters such as this, there is a process which involves the open exchange of information and requests, clarification of terms and then council discussion takes place. In this matter, discussion is legislated by the Community Charter to take place at an ‘In Camera’ portion of a meeting because it involves discussion pertaining to the provision of a service to the municipality.”

The Chamber’s board apologized to those who will be negatively impacted by the closure.

“We sincerely feel for your frustrations and hope the Town of Lake Cowichan has a plan to offer Visitor Centre services for the many of tens of thousands of people that require it each year.”

Day said while the Visitor Centre may be closing, he’s buoyed by the possibilities that lie ahead.

“In the official letter that I received from the president of the Chamber, I share this statement he has put forward: ‘To end on a positive note, the Chamber board will now direct its time and financial resources that would have been spent on Visitor Centre operations, and focus that energy and funding on the goals of bringing greater value, promotion and voice to our business members. Together our voice is strong and we can demand action from our elected officials.’ To that end, I am encouraged and sincerely looking forward to the actions associated to that statement,” Day said. “Chambers of Commerce are the most appropriate agency to advocate and search for ways to assist in the support of each unique local business community. As for local tourism, I am hearing predictions of a repeat of the last tourism season which we in the Cowichan Lake Area found to be extremely busy and where businesses were reporting record sales.”

Day said the focus now turns to how to safely welcome those tourists to the area in the new era of COVID-19.

“To sum that up, the tourists will be coming to take advantage of our unique natural assets and the services our communities provide,” he said. “I have started the conversation with our MLA and area health officials asking for support and guidance on how to best assist the community with increased tourism activity during this critical time of the pandemic and vaccine roll out ahead of us. I look forward to any information provided so that council can engage in an informed discussion on this topic.”

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