Susan Boyce ,Western Investor, June 2006
Known in the Haida Language as Haida Gwaii,…the Queen Charlotte Islands is comprised of two large land masses- Graham Island and Moresby Island- plus more than 150 smaller, surrounding islands. It boasts a surprisingly temperate climate, world-class sport fishing, miles of pristine sandy beaches and a rich cultural heritage. Some 5,000 people scattered throughout several communities call this natural wonderland home.
According to Rudy Nielsen, president of NIHO Land & Cattle and a well-known recreational expert, the Queen Charlotte Islands also represent some of the best investment potential to be found anywhere in British Columbia.
“People simply have not discovered the area yet. Where else on the North American coast- anywhere from Mexico to Alaska- can you buy a four to five acre property with 400 to 700 feet of ocean frontage for $250,000?” Nielsen said.
That’s the price tag for one of NIHO’s soon-to-be-released lots in Naikoon Park on North Graham Island. Purchased more than two decades ago, these acreages have never been logged and are legally protected against all future logging. Nielsen predicts they will be worth at least triple the quarter-million dollar investment within five to eight years due, in large part, to pent up demand and the fact that available recreational land inventory is drying up.
“The Crown owns 95 per cent of all land in this province,” Nielsen notes. “The remaining five percent is made up of approximately 1,700,000 titles. Of those, 1,200,000 are residential properties. When you take commercial properties out of the mix, there are only a couple of hundred thousand titles available for recreational properties.” Last year, he adds, it took fewer than 14 days to sell out six lots similar to Naikoon- every one at full asking price.
Although he acknowledges the past decade has taken its toll on the Charlottes in general, Andrew Merilees, Masset-based director of the Queen Charlotte Islands Chamber of Commerce and president of the tourism association, believes the next five to 10 years will usher in a new era of prosperity here.
“When the military downsized their base at Masset from 230 to eight personnel in 1995, we lost a huge part of our population base,” he said. “All their assets, including over 200 houses were turned over to the Village of Masset and Old Massett.” Known as PMQs- private military quarters- the two towns soon released these homes onto the private market drastically lowering the cost of housing.
“In 1997, you could buy a duplex for $32,000 or a solidly-built four bedroom home for around $50, 000,” Merilees said. “It was great for the local population, but it destroyed the market for anyone who owned anything other than a PMQ. After all, why would anyone spend $120,000 when they could buy a PMQ for $40,000, put in $40,000 worth of renovations, and still only have spent two-thirds the price of a non-PMQ house? It’s taken almost 10 years to find equilibrium, but we are now emerging as a solid, stable market.”
Like many other Islanders, Merilees said the almost completed Qay’llnagaay Heritage Centre on Skidegate on the south island will be a significant catalyst for further growth, generating both positive local economic spin-offs and enhanced awareness of the Charlottes in the lucrative global tourism market. With a projected final price tag of $26 million, the 53,000 square foot facility will double the size of the existing Haida Gwaii museum and will be comprised of six buildings that will house a performing arts centre, work spaces for local artists, an administration centre for the Archipelago Management Board (a branch of Parks Canada), a lecture hall and a glass-and-beam longhouse to be known as the Welcome Centre. It will also be a showcase for generations of repatriated native art reclaimed worldwide.
“This will be the culmination of a 30 to 40 year vision,” said Robert DuDoward, CEO of capital development for the Skidegate Band. Funding, he adds, came primarily from federal and municipal governments with the balance provided by the Gwaii Trust, a fund designed to preserve and enhance the unique Haida culture of the Islands.
DuDoward admits, however, that ensuring the centre receives enough visitors every year will be “tougher than actually building it. We must be absolutely truthful about the tourism experience we are providing. Many people are looking for five-star pampering. The likelihood of that happening here is virtually nil. But there aren’t many places in the world where you can walk out on the beach and find sustenance or where you can watch totems being created by a master. You can here.”
Trevor Jarvis, chief administrative officer for the Village of Masset, notes he is seeing a steadily increased demand for tour-oriented businesses. “People often want someone to show them the sights rather than explore on their own- especially because there are so many unique aspects to the Charlottes. For example, even I didn’t realize we have surfing beaches here until my brother took it up.” Additionally, Jarvis suggests there are still plenty of opportunities for rentals of outdoor equipment like kayaks, boats, or campers or trailers.
One unusual aspect of development in the Queen Charlotte Islands is the spirit of cooperation that apparently permeates every phase. One such capital project is a joint waste treatment centre on schedule to be operational by the end of the year. “Masset built the water treatment facility, Old Massett will do the second stage sewer treatment facility. Both will benefit,” said Merilees.
Even more ambitious is the collaboration between the Village of Masset, Old Massett, and the Village of Port Clements to build a much-needed regional hospital. The projected budget is $9 million with construction likely to begin this summer.
“The provincial government has a 99 year rental agreement, so they are happy because they aren’t putting out the funds to build it,” Merilees notes, adding the project will allow all public health facilities to be consolidated in a single location.
Yet another change with positive implications occurred on December 6, 2005, when the Islands’ main centre, Queen Charlotte City, gained the status of official municipality named the Village of Queen Charlotte. “We are so new we haven’t even had a chance to redo out OCP,” said an obviously delighted Mayor Carol Kulesha.
She’s quick to add that funding is already in place for an updated community plan and that the new municipality will remain committed to an Island-wide viability study examining the impact of tourism, industry, and growth. The more pressing question is how to develop the Charlottes in a manner that is respectful to tradition and local interests.
“This is a very exciting time in our history,” Kulesha said. “There’s no doubt the Queen Charlotte Islands are beautiful, but we will never be the same kind of tourist destination as Banff. We must first decide what our own people want. If we build a trail, it must be because we want to walk on it. If other people like it, then it is good for both.”