40% of North Vancouver businesses considering leaving: Survey

North Vancouver’s business community is warning our daily transportation problems aren’t just a nuisance that make us late for dinner – they’re an existential threat to the local economy.

The North Vancouver Chamber of Commerce released a survey of 153 of its member businesses Wednesday, raising red flags from an employer’s point of view.

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More than three-quarters of respondents said they have employees who commute to the North Shore for work. But the same percentage said it is getting harder to retain staff because they are getting fed up with the drive or transit ride in.

“How can we ask people to work for our company when it takes them two hours to commute here?” one of the respondents wrote.

Replacing them is even worse, with 84 per cent who reported transportation is a factor in difficulty hiring new employees.

“We used to be able to attract from Vancouver and Burnaby, but no longer. Nobody wants to deal with the bridges,” another wrote.

Goods movement is also an issue for 54 per cent of respondents. One business owner said couriers have come to refer to North Van as the “seventh circle of hell.”

Although 77 per cent of business owners said it was either unlikely or very unlikely that they’d consider closing because of transportation challenges, 40 per cent said they would consider relocating outside of North Vancouver.

One of those considering leaving town is Hatfield Consultants, which employs 70 scientists in the Harbourside neighbourhood. The company recently lost a couple long-time staff due to their commute from the more eastern suburbs, said Martin Davies, Hatfield’s senior vice-president in an email.

“Especially after the tolls were lifted from the Port Mann bridge,” Davies said. “They would like to live on the North Shore, but even with good jobs it is no longer within their means to do so.”

Other employers with better access to transit will have an easier time scooping them up, Davies added.

“Because the transit connections are so poor from the eastern suburbs to the North Shore, especially connections from SkyTrain lines, knowledge businesses like ours are at a clear disadvantage to firms in Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond and Coquitlam, where rapid transit options exist,” he said. “Although we were founded on the North Shore and have always been here, we may need to move our office off the North Shore when our current lease is up if transit options and traffic do not improve.”

Reactions like that are distressing but not surprising, said Patrick Stafford-Smith, CEO for the chamber.

“We’ve heard over the last three years through our discussions with business that transportation is the No. 1 economic issue,” he said. “I certainly think that affordability of housing, jobs and transportation are all linked together, so it’s a game of Whac-A-Mole trying to deal with each individually. I would expect a lot of this is not going to get better until we have a transportation solution that can allow North Vancouver to integrate with the rest of Metro Vancouver.”

The 2016 census found 41.4 per cent of the North Shore’s commuters come from elsewhere in the region – a nine per cent spike since the last census.

Other employers don’t have a choice to leave. Liz Barnett, executive director of the North Shore Disability Resource Society, said she has a hard time keeping residential care workers. Of a staff of 220, only 50 employees live here.

“They could work here, and we’re great employers, but for the same amount of money and similar work, they can work in Vancouver, Surrey,  Langley,” she said. “Eventually they leave.”

The chamber is now calling for senior levels of government to come together and establish a rapid transit link that connects the North Shore to the rest of the Lower Mainland.

 “That allows the best people to be working at the jobs they want to but also employers to have access to the pool of talent that’s out there.”

The good news is, one small but important step has already been taken, Stafford-Smith said, with the launch of the Integrated North Shore Transportation Planning Project. North Vancouver-Lonsdale NDP MLA Bowinn Ma is spearheading the project to bring together all three municipalities, the province, the federal government at both a political and staff level, as well as TransLink to get everyone working in step.

One of the items on the agenda is a study into a “multi-modal Burrard Inlet crossing” – a fixed rail link over the Second Narrows. City of North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussatto began raising the North Shore SkyTrain issue last year, as did North Vancouver-Seymour Liberal MLA Jane Thornthwaite.

That’s going to take investment from taxpayers, Stafford-Smith acknowledged, and lots of it. But he said, after 30 years of coasting, it’s time.

“We need the population to realize this will be the legacy of our generation. So far we’ve been living off the investments of previous generations and we need to accept the fact that this needs to be paid for,” he said.

Our current clag-ups also throttle the efficiency of the port, which has knock-on effects throughout the whole Canadian economy, Stafford-Smith added.

And for those waiting with baited breath to see if a fabled “third crossing” for drivers to get downtown is on the business community’s wish list, it’s not.

“I don’t believe that building roads is going to build us out of this problem. When you build more roads, especially the likes of a bridge, all the surrounding road infrastructure is impacted too. I believe that’s just a domino effect to more problems,” he said.

Though we all certainly know the frustration of trying to commute now, Stafford-Smith is warning about the longer-term impacts.

“The big thing for me is that businesses in North Vancouver need to be able to plan their investments and right now, they see no future,” he said. “We’ll be left with the businesses that can’t move and a bunch of low-paying jobs, service jobs that don’t provide the rich economy and rich diversity of services that we’ve got right now.”

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