Telkwa revitalizes downtown core

New commercial spaces proposed in Hankin building to add revenue.

he Village of Telkwa is attempting to new bring businesses to their downtown core and generate added revenue through their Hankin Ave. building  refurbishment project, due for completion next month.

Three years ago, Telkwa residents soundly rejected village council’s proposal to spend $1 million to renovate the Hankin Ave. building where the village office is located.

Council decided that, rather than give up on the project, they would alter it and search out alternative options to fund the building improvements.

In 2011, the village hired grant writer Jane Stevenson as part of a Northern Development Initiative Trust grant at a cost of $7,000 dollars and soon after, she applied for and received a grant from the Federal Gas Tax Innovation Fund to retrofit the Hankin Ave. building with a goal towards reducing heat loss and increasing energy efficiency by adding insulation to the roof and walls.

A micro district heating system was also added, bringing the grand total of the project to $644,000.

The grant was entirely funded by the FGTIF – a rarity for a sum that large.

Once the renovations are complete, the building will be capable of producing an abundance of clean, cheap energy.

Fuel for the heating system will come primarily from trees killed by the mountain pine beetle epidemic that has devastated forests through much of the B.C. interior.

The renovations serve three main purposes.

First, they allow the village to generate revenue off the newly-installed grid by providing heat to adjacent buildings. The village will sell heat to Telkwa Elementary School, one business and five residences, which will provide a net revenue of between $10,000 – $15,000 per year.

Second, during the renovations, the village is repurposing 5,000 square feet of unused space in the building into commercial rentals.

In the event the village receives a second grant to improve the interior of the new commercial spaces, and they are able to rent them out, they will add an additional $30,000- $40,000 in revenue per year.

Because the federal grant to retrofit the building doesn’t cover the renovations needed to convert the commercial space, the town is using unused money from the pine beetle fund – a $400,000 reparation provided by the B.C. government in the wake of pine beetle disaster – to finish off the project.

Waiting until the project was finished and then redividing the extra space would not have been cost efficient so councillors decided that in the long run, it was better for the bottom line to do it now.

But they are confident the money is forthcoming.

“The Ministry of Jobs and Skills Training has committed to work with us to find that additional money to finish the interior work needed,” Village of Telkwa councillor Rimas Zitkauskas said.

Finally, council hopes the project creates the perception that Telkwa is open for business.

Telkwa has some of the highest property tax rates in the province, but the main culprit isn’t a result of spending too much, rather, it’s a lack of commercial industry, Zitkauskas said.

“The reason we are having challenges is not because we have a problem with overspending. Normally the largest portion of a community’s operating budget is payroll. If you are working at anything over 65 per cent you should take a look and try to lessen it. We are operating at 45 per cent.”

Currently, Telkwa’s business tax revenues are among the lowest in the province.

An average town or city generates an average of about 40 per cent of their taxes from business revenues, Telkwa hovers around seven per cent. 

And that means residents have to pay a larger portion of property taxes than most people living in towns of a similar size.

One issue is Telkwa’s proximity to a relative economic giant in Smithers. With a larger economic centre so close, Telkwa-based businesses may move to Smithers or not even open up in the village to begin with.

A village of comparable size like Fraser Lake, has a larger business community and more revenue generated through commercial taxes because there are no other municipalities within 60 kilometres.

“It’s not that our population couldn’t support these businesses,” Zitkauskas said. “It’s just that it’s hard for us to attract them, even though we have purposefully tried to keep our business tax rate low.”

Another strike against Telkwa is their lack of major resource-based companies. There are no mills, no large forestry companies and no mines providing what would be a huge boon to the town budget’s bottom line. Again, Fraser Lake has both a mine and a mill adding to the village tax base.

Ideally, Telkwa would have more commercial spaces available for prospective businesses to move into, Zitkauskas said.

Of the 15 new businesses that have come to Telkwa over the past six years, four are mobile vendors, six have built their own spaces or converted existing spaces to commercial property and the remainder are home-based businesses.

The Village would like for more businesses to at least have the option of staying in town.

All of these issues have spawned a new philosophy of trying to regenerate Telkwa’s downtown core, to attract new businesses and build a more vibrant commercial area within Telkwa.

The hope is the area off of Hwy 16 and Hankin Ave., could become a commercial centre within the downtown core.

“We are trying to attract more retail businesses,” Stevenson said.

“That area has so much potential. We want to retain our entrepreneurs and we are hoping this will be a positive stepping stone towards more commercial investment.”

Recently, the Hankin Ave. village office project, along with a few other initiatives, and Telkwa’s ability to keep payroll low, were singled out by the Liberal Minster of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, Coralee Oakes at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities meetings in Vancouver in September, in front of a crowd of hundreds of representatives of towns and municipalities.

“This morning I had the great privilege of meeting with a community that absolutely exemplifies this approach,” she told the crowd. “Telkwa are you here? You really stood out in the meetings today. Telkwa is a small, rural community that has limited access to industry, but they have found innovative ways to move their community forward, such as a municipal district heating project and an award-winning integrative sustainable plan, affordable housing and an age-friendly plan. They have done that all within the last few years.”

At the UBCM convention the Hankin Ave. project received an award from the Community Energy Association.

Now Stevenson is setting her focus on another big project: finding grant money for the villages’s water system.

“We need to upgrade and to expand our water distribution system and create another storage tower so that the village has increased capacity,” Stevenson said.

While waiting to identify potential partnerships to add a second water storage site, the village is dedicating $500,000 of annual gas tax transfers to repair and expand its existing water storage infrastructure.

“It can be difficult to find money for infrastructure, but in the meantime I am going to try and better the community by finding money for groups in the community that need it.”

Since Stevenson began, she has raised more than $1.4 million for projects for the Village of Telkwa.