If you build it, they will come.
And Port Renfrew is rebuilding its economy from the ground up.
A small town nestled on the southwest corner of Vancouver Island in the forest along Highway 14, once thrived as a fishing and logging community. Its roots date back to the 1800s and at one point, nearly 2,500 workers and families resided in the area.
Over the years, as technology improved and transporting lumber became easier, job opportunities in the area began to dwindle, along with the population as people moved away to find work elsewhere.
“When I moved here in 1988, the community was depressed,” said Peter Hovey, owner of Trail Head Resort in Port Renfrew. “Property values were low. There were things for sale that never sold. The majority of the homes in the beach camp were empty; it was really at an all-time low.”
In 1996, Hovey started up a charter fishing charter business, which started to attract tourists.
“At that time, the people [in the community] were not very friendly to tourism. They didn’t see it as an opportunity, what they saw was the lifestyle they grew up with being taken away,” said Hovey. “Lots of hikers have always passed through along the West Coast Trail in summer months, but it wasn’t really an industry for Port Renfrew. It took a long time before there was any real turnaround. No one really knew where Port Renfrew was.”
Eventually, within the past 10 years, a snowball effect started happening, developers caught notice of the area and started to pave the way, people started buying vacation homes, businesses opened, and the community found its new economic base: tourism.
“The evolution of the town was inevitable,” said Hovey. “And I would say five years ago is when there was a dramatic difference in the community. People realized there was no other way to make money here.”
Port Renfrew is now home to 300 residents, but the town is drawing in hundreds of thousands of visitors each year from all over the globe.
“It’s becoming a vacation spot for Vancouver Islanders, and Lower Mainlanders primarily, and a number of people have acquired vacation homes out here and they rent them as well as use them. That seems to be the trend right now,” said Hovey.
“We have a lot of Canadian, North American and international travellers coming out to visit for outdoor recreational activities such as hiking and fishing, but the town itself I see evolving as non-primary residences. That’s what the sales are all about now.”
Hovey added that in order to attract more people to actually reside in the area year-round, there needs to be more amenities such as cell service, better power services as outages are fairly regularly, and a school that reaches Grade 12.
“The community needs more young families to move here,” said Hovey. “Without young families, a community can’t survive.”
Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce vice-president Karl Ablack, who is also a developer for the area, agreed, saying the majority of people coming out are mainly buying vacation homes, but things are going to start to change as tourism and development increases.
Ablack is developing a master plan for the area, which includes creating an entirely new town centre with retail shops and a new hotel, as well as suburbs, hiking and mountain bike trails. He even hopes to have a chair lift built for mountain biking. Coast Guard Canada will be expanding into Port Renfrew as well.
He hopes the developments will attract families to come and live in Port Renfrew, and added the Pacheedaht Nation is working to build a new school that will go from kindergarten to Grade 12. In the meantime, the community is working hard to draw people in for tourism, using technology to their advantage this time around to market themselves to the world.
“There’s a lot of things turning Port Renfrew in to a hot spot right now, and people are wanting to come here. The town has reinvented itself, first in recreational sport fishing, but now there are a lot of reasons people come such as hiking, ancient forests, beaches, festivals, vacation rentals, and all sorts of eco-tourism,” said Ablack.
“The chamber of commerce and individual businesses have done a great job marketing themselves. The entrepreneurial spirit is high and they are driving the change. People are coming and recognizing the beauty and the nature here and are marketing that now.”
The Pacheedaht Nation has been working hard is well. It has puchased 28 hectares of land near Jordan River — 40 kilometres south of Port Renfrew and as plans that include surf sites, traditional Nuu-chah-nulth canoe rentals, an interpretive centre and restaurants featuring a Pacheedaht salmon bake.
Ablack said the Pacific Marine Circle Route, which was recently upgraded, is drawing people towards Port Renfrew, and added that when Avatar Grove was protected, it was also “huge” for the town’s economy.
Ken Wu, president of the Ancient Forest Alliance, which found Avatar Grove near Port Renfrew in 2010, said the ancient forest has skyrocketed the tourism industry in the area.
“People don’t just pass through Port Renfrew anymore, they stop and explore the area. The town is known all over the world,” said Wu. “When we were campaigning to protect Avatar Grove, that’s when we noticed more and more people coming to the community. Now, each year the forest sees hundreds of thousands of tourists. ”
He added that when people come to see the forests, they realize how much there is to do in the little town and want to stay. They often want to go to beaches, hiking or use the town as a relaxing getaway.
“They check out the restaurants, the beaches, all the other ancient forests in the areas, go on hikes, get beers, go fishing. The town has truly become a tourism hot spot,” said Wu.
Juan de Fuca Electoral Area director Mike Hicks said the community is thriving entirely because of the people who live there.
“I haven’t granted Port Renfrew a cent towards economic development, the community has done it all themselves,” said Hicks. “People don’t just move out there and sit and look at their belly buttons, they don’t stop moving for a second.”
He said the town’s close proximity to Victoria makes it an easily accessible spot for outdoor recreation and tourism, and is what is going to drive the opportunity in the area.
“They have tremendous accommodations out there, the waterfront cabins, retreats, and vacation homes are absolutely incredible,” said Hicks. “It’s not just people visiting the Island that go there either, it’s people from Victoria, Sooke, anywhere that like to go and get away for a weekend. It’s remote, but it’s close enough that it’s not inconvenient, and there is tons of stuff to do.”
Hicks and Hovey also started up Swiftsure Marina, and say the halibut and salmon fishing in the Port Renfrew area is some of the best you can find on the West Coast, which draws many people in to come and give it a try.
“There’s just so much potential, and so much happening out there. The Pacheedaht Nation has hopped on board with the new gas station they built, they did a great job fixing up their campsites, and have paved all the land in their Nation beautifully,” said Hicks. “I see a very bright future for Port Renfrew.”