Have you ever wondered where we’re going? Is Bowen going to grow, are property values going to rise or fall, is BC Ferries going to drive us into the ground? There are a few factors that exert enormous control over our demographics but there are also some macroeconomic trends that may skew things a bit.
Imagine what Bowen would be like if we had unlimited free ferry service with runs every fifteen minutes. Instead of a 3,500 population it would be 35,000 and the character of the island would be completely different. We have a small population precisely because access is so difficult and expensive. In business we talk about the width of a company’s economic moat; those things that prevent competitors from destabilizing its position. On Bowen our moat isn’t just figurative, we literally have a moat that keeps the outside world at bay. So the next time you contemplate how great it would be if Friday afternoon ferries weren’t so overloaded remember that it is those overloads that have driven so many islanders away and made room for the next adventurers who wanted to see if they could adapt to an island lifestyle.
If you’ve been here for awhile you have probably noticed how many new arrivals have lasted three to five years on the island before moving on. It seems to me this is particularly true of older couples. My sense is that families with young children adapt better to the island. Maybe it’s because the combination of community, security and nature create an environment for a young family that’s hard to duplicate elsewhere. Also, it was recently pointed out to me that those who commute have an opportunity for a social life on the ferry that can’t be found commuting in a car to the suburbs. When I think back on the years I did it I realize that although it’s been 23 years since I commuted I still have friends that I sat with almost daily for over a decade. If we happen to meet on the ferry now we just sit down and start talking as if we had seen each other last week. I know I’m rambling but I don’t think we appreciate enough how much riding on the ferry adds to the social life of commuters. So if you’re new to the island and have been sitting in your car wander upstairs and strike up a conversation.
Getting back to the topic at hand, those economic forces that are changing our demographics. Houses keep getting built but our population doesn’t go up. We are now back to having over 25 % of residences as seasonal homes. As property values and taxes rose throughout the 1990’s many summer homes were sold to full time residents and the percentage of population increase in the summer dropped dramatically. But by 2005 we hit the wall on ferry capacity and the fulltime population stopped growing, and probably declined. By 2009 housing starts were almost nonexistent. But then a new economic reality manifested itself. Interest rates had gotten so low that real estate regained its cachet as a long-term investment. And for people with money the idea of a seasonal and weekend home just a half hour from West Vancouver regained its appeal. So today our contractors are back at work and things seem to be humming along.
Looking ahead there are a couple of things on the horizon. The first is the ferry refit which will be enormously inconvenient but which will increase by capacity by 12 cars. That’s almost a 14% increase. It should significantly reduce overloads and ultimately drive away fewer commuters until our population again grows and capacity is again reached. If we also get an increase in the number of commuters using public transit and the number of folks who can work from home we could see our winter population jump by several hundred people. An associated macroeconomic event was that winter homes in southern California became very inexpensive for awhile so we now have more of Bowen’s retired population going south for the winter, which again makes room for a few more people on the ferry.
Another trend, which might materialize, is an influx of wealthy Chinese building seasonal homes, particularly at Cape Roger Curtis. China controls how much currency its citizens can take out of the country. As these controls are loosened it is expected that estate size waterfront properties in exclusive areas near desirable international cities will be very popular. However when this will happen is anybody’s guess. Apparently there are actually Chinese government representatives monitoring housing starts to see if any nationals have moved money out of China. If controls aren’t removed The Cape may wait a long time to fulfil its destiny and new home construction might be spread out over many years.
So what does the future hold for us? Pretty much the same as we have now, inconvenience and expense balanced by being part of a wonderful community in one of the world’s most beautiful places. Enjoy the summer.