It’s time for a paradigm shift. We have long thought of Bowen as a growing, thriving community. Between the 2001 and 2006 census our population increased by over 400 people. But on February 8 Statistics Canada informed us that between 2006 and 2011 our population increased by 42 people. The typical response to that information is that Stats Canada must have made a mistake, but they didn’t. During the last five years the number of dwelling units “occupied by usual residents” only increased by six units. So, as hard as it is to believe, population growth on Bowen has come to a grinding halt.
If you’re wondering how this happened just cast your mind back to about 2006 when the ferry overloads were getting intolerable. To sustain continued population growth we needed a larger ferry. Instead BC Ferries started to raise fares and kept raising them until the overloads went away. With the overloads went the commuters and the consistent growth trend that we had seen for thirty years. Some will argue that this is just a blip and that soon our population will be growing again. I don’t think so. For most newcomers commuting is a fact of life. The cost and capacity of the ferry is everything and BC Ferries has no intention of replacing our existing boat within their ten-year plan.
The census reminds us that 120 new dwelling units were built during the last five years. That means that almost 25% of the houses on Bowen are now seasonal houses. So we get property taxes from over 400 houses that use very few municipal services. Conversely 400 occupied houses would add 1,000 to our population taking us from 3600 through to the magic number of 4500 which is where demographers tell us that all manner of retail businesses and services become viable. So the catch 22 is that we need the people to become a reasonably self-sufficient little town but we can’t get the people because of high ferry fares. But if the fares go down the overloads would mean that we would need a bigger ferry. If we got a bigger ferry we would have to spend money on ferry marshalling. That would necessitate tax increases, which would require more development to get more taxpayers. And we would be on track to becoming another small town consumed by a rapidly growing metropolis.
So let’s assume that we graciously accept that our ferry constraints will be with us for the foreseeable future. When we look at the commuter traffic we have to keep in mind that, while overall volume is slowly declining, the faces keep on changing. Long time commuters are slowly retiring, young couples looking for the ideal environment for starting a family are still arriving and many, whose children have reached high school age or beyond, are moving to more convenient locals. As more census information is released we will be able to see whether we are aging in place or moving to Bowen for particular phases of life.
Sticking with gracious acceptance for a while we should look at how this increasing demographic of absentee owners will affect public policy. Our first lesson came during the last election. My sense of it was that the younger families on Bowen were quite excited by the prospect of a national park while the older and summer people were dead-set against it. Normally I don’t think that many of the absentee owners would bother voting in November but they turned out in droves when the status quo was threatened.
Looking ahead a few months to when our summer residents arrive, the ferry line-ups will get worse so water taxi services, at least for the summer, should become more and more viable. Especially if tourists to Vancouver are sold on the fun of hopping on a small boat at Granville Island and shooting over to a quaint island park for the day. I see us going back to being more of a seasonal, tourist-oriented island. In the late seventies our population swung wildly from 3000 people in the summer to 800 in the winter. We longed for the first rains of September when the season ended and life settled down.
So, do we still worry that the island is going to be swallowed up by Metro Vancouver? Do we worry that we won’t have the tax base to pay for our sewage treatment or a new community hall? Will the absorption rate for commercial real estate get so low that instead of maybe allowing development in the Cove we’ll be begging for it? Will the Municipality finally get around to offering some surplus lands for sale only to find that there’s no market? Will that loan haunt our tax bills forever?
My guess is that Bowen is about to be rediscovered. But this time it will be by those less dependent on commuting. Baby boomers looking to cash out their Vancouver homes and young families who appreciate the value of community will continue to find their way here. We offer a vibrant, joyous community with an exceptional number of opportunities for newcomers to join and enjoy the social group that they have been craving. The paradigm has shifted but not necessarily for the worse.