What will cell service mean for Port Renfrew’s future?
Community leaders on Juan de Fuca coast voice gratitude—and concerns
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Community leaders on Juan de Fuca coast voice gratitude—and concerns
For Vicki Weber to find out that a lost or injured hiker needs help from her Juan de Fuca Search and Rescue detachment, it usually goes something like this:
“They’ll get into trouble and won’t be able to call 911, so they’ll physically call for help. By the time a passerby comes around, they’ll pass on their information and someone will have to hike out to the road… and find a ride into Sooke to call 911 and get in contact with us.”
That process can take anywhere from two to four hours, a chilling amount of time when lives are at stake—and it’s just the first step.
“It’s a bit of a telephone game, as we don’t end up having a solid description of where they are or whether they’ve moved somewhere else in the meantime.”
Weber said their own team has relied on cell service to respond to incidents within the Juan de Fuca electoral area and parts of the Westshore. When they don’t have cell service themselves, that can further complicate a rescue.
The drive to Port Renfrew along Highway 14 has been known by Victorians as the road where you can unplug and not have to worry about any notifications popping up on your phone, but for some, the feeling of freedom is mixed with a slight tinge of caution. Just a few kilometres before Jordan River, you completely fall off the grid—any shred of cell service disappears until Port Renfrew and Pacheedaht First Nation.
That predicament is expected to become a problem of the past with the province’s latest announcement on April 7 that it will be adding cellular service along a 70-kilometre stretch of Highway 14 between Sooke and Port Renfrew by the end of October.
The addition of seven new cell towers, provided by Rogers Communications Ltd. at the price tag of $4.9 million, is expected to not only help visitors who have no backup plan but also provide more than 1,250 households in the area with access the rest of us take for granted. Plus, a highway rest area near the entrance to Sombrio Beach will be upgraded to include a Wi-Fi connection.
But this latest announcement leaves some wondering whether Port Renfrew could face overdevelopment, rising house prices, or a massive tourism boom.
Back in January 2018, the federal government announced the Connected Coast project, which would see 3.5 million metres of subsea fibre optic cable built along BC’s coast to add high-speed internet for 159 landings at rural and remote coastal communities. On such a large scale, this project set out to benefit 175,000 BC households from Haida Gwaii to Port Renfrew and around the entire Island.
Although $45.4 million for the project was provided by the Government of Canada’s Connect to Innovate program, Indigenous Services Canada, and the province’s Connecting British Columbia program in late 2019, the pandemic delayed the timeline for contractor CityWest. Since changing to a new CEO, the company has renewed their commitment to the network project and added Strathcona Regional District to the project as a joint venture.
As the optic cable project continues, the announcement of cell service not only along Highway 14 but in Otter Point, Shirley, Jordan River, Port Renfrew, and Pacheedaht First Nation is a long-awaited celebration.
Juan de Fuca electoral director Mike Hicks gives credit to Premier John Horgan—whose riding includes much of the area that will be getting service—for taking notice of demand for connectivity along the southern part of the Island. Horgan stated in a release that the new cell service will provide peace of mind to those not only living out in Otter Point, but also anyone heading out on hikes like the Juan de Fuca trail.
“All the stars have finally aligned,” Hicks said. “This is more than just a start. I’ve been the cry baby to get these things done and we’ve finally got cell service. We’re no longer second-class citizens. It’s fantastic.”
Hicks pointed out the added investment for community members to have a work-from-home option. He says he gets calls from people all the time wanting to move out to Port Renfrew and the Juan de Fuca electoral area. Many have been disheartened to hear about the lack of cell service, including a small Montreal-based tech company that briefly considered relocation with Hicks, since their 18 employees all love the outdoors and surfing.
Hicks says one of the most beneficial aspects of getting cell service infrastructure out to Port Renfrew is the ability to improve CREST, a radio system that connects 50 emergency response agencies across southern Vancouver Island, including BC Ambulance Service and BC RCMP. Over 7.5 million calls go through the system every year, roughly breaking down to one every four seconds. Currently, Hicks says coverage around Otter Point is spotty and “abysmal” past Shirley. Hicks has petitioned and successfully received permission to attach a CREST monopole transmitter onto one of the newly announced cell towers.
Hicks says this is a “game changer” for emergency crews, such as the Shirley Volunteer Fire Department. He expects the safety aspects in the Juan de Fuca electoral area to increase tenfold, making things much easier for the fire departments to call for dispatch and backup if needed.
Looking ahead, Weber pointed out that although there is an upside to having cell coverage, it introduces a false sense of security for new hikers and travellers alike who are going into areas they’re unfamiliar with and perhaps less prepared for, which could result in more 911 calls.
She says their message is always the same: take precautions, do the research of the area you’re visiting, and speak with locals who have visited the area before. During the third wave of the pandemic, Weber reiterated that adventure seekers should tone down their sense of thrill, adding that not only a hiker’s life is at risk in every rescue situation, but also the responders, the paramedics, and the health-care system.
Pacheedaht Chief Jeff Jones says he’s heard from many voices within the tight-knit community of around 280 people who mostly agree that connectivity, such as the cell service tower, is important not only for visitors but residents as well. In his eyes, reliable connectivity keeps costs down and convenience up for the community.
He adds that some businesses will soon be able to accept credit/debit payments without driving two kilometres to an office and back to clear the transaction due to service problems.
“For Pacheedaht, which is remote and experiences many power outages annually, often for days at a time, reliable connectivity can be a lifeline,” he explained in an emailed statement. “We are excited for the growth that connectivity will bring to Pacheedaht and Port Renfrew businesses and the area’s economy. Reliable connectivity is a key ingredient to attracting people or investments and means nearly any business can thrive here.”
Jones pointed out that he’s had sustainable growth at the forefront of his mind, as many people within his community have compared Pacheedaht’s potential growth to Tofino, a rural community turned vacation hotspot. In 2018, the Pacheedaht bought 28 acres of land near Jordan River, previously owned by BC Hydro. Jones told Ha-Shilth-Sa they’ve been discussing ecotourism opportunities in popular surf destination Jordan River. In a presentation to the Capital Regional District in May 2018, the Nation shared its plans for a possible surf shop, an interpretive centre, traditional canoe rentals, and restaurants featuring a Pacheedaht salmon bake.
Jones said he’s both pleased and reluctant to compare the two communities, as he’s seen the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations be very active in economic development in and around Tofino.
In Tofino, the growth has not been a straightforward process for the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations, spread out along the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. The Nation owns and operates Best Western TinWis Resort in Tofino, and, in 2008, signed a protocol with the District of Tofino to work together to develop the northern end of the peninsula where large sections of Crown lands are located.
The treaty discussions have faced pushback from the community of slightly more than 1,100 people as they’ve entered Stage 4 agreement-in-principle negotiations. There are still two remaining stages left, including the final agreement and treaty implementation.
“While the Tofino area has enjoyed development success over years, that same accelerated growth has led to pain points within their community,” Jones said.
Port Renfrew has one general store, a gas station, and limited phone service. Though the town has a small volunteer fire department and an ambulance station that runs 24/7, the closest hospitals are two hours away in Duncan and Victoria.
Karl Ablack, president of the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce, says the announcement of cell service is going to be a “game changer” for the community and his business. As a partner with Port Renfrew Management, Ablack is planning to break ground on a new subdivision development called Beachview Rise in Port Renfrew. He’s been planning this “master-planned community” development for several years and he’s got 13 quarter-acre lots to start the first phase with the option between ocean views or surrounded by forest. He plans to start pre-sales in late April or early May.
Ablack says this is one of the first developments for full-time living planned in several years. Port Renfrew was once a bustling area for the fishing and logging industry back in the day, but the population began shrinking as transporting lumber became easier and residents began moving away to find new jobs.
Peter Hovey, owner of Trail Head Resort in Port Renfrew, told the Sooke News Mirror that the community was depressed back when he arrived in 1988. Less than a decade later, Hovey had started a fishing charter business to draw tourists to the area.
“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. 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.”
Hovey further explained that the evolution of Port Renfrew was inevitable, pointing to tourism as their economic base. Fast forward, there are an estimated 150 residents living in the unincorporated Port Renfrew while countless visitors take weekend trips to the community, which is less than two hours from Victoria.
In addition, the Chamber partnered with Pacific Gateway Marina and the Capital Regional District to build a new reservoir, effectively doubling the water capacity for Port Renfrew, which increases their fire suppression capacity and opens the door for the new development of single-family homes.
Several realtor sites have the same four properties for sale, ranging between $210,000 for one bed and bath, to $1,295,000 for a single-family home plus four additional 350+ square foot bunk cabins. But with the combination of oncoming cell service, consistent road improvements along Highway 14, and a naturally breathtaking landscape, the future could spell massive success for the quaint town.
Hicks also agrees that Port Renfrew could see the eyes of international travellers as the Fairy Creek blockade, some of the best-known old-growth stands in the country, and world-class surfing and fishing continue to shine a spotlight on the surrounding areas. He says Port Renfrew “won’t be the same moving forward, that’s for sure”.
“It’s kind of the field of dreams,” said Ablack in a recent Capital Daily podcast episode talking to host Jackie Lamport about what cell phone service will mean for Port Renfrew’s future.
“Build it and they will come.”