This month, Community Futures Okanagan Similkameen is celebrating 30 years of helping business grow.
There is not many government-funded agencies that can survive that length of time. Community Futures has done it, and along the way, helped been part of many of the success stories of the region.
Mary Ellen Heidt, the group’s general manager, has been with Community Futures since it got its start in 1984, when, during a period of high unemployment, the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen wanted to develop a program to help small business get started. That economic study and proposal went to the federal government, and the program started with a $1.55 million investment fund to lend to small businesses.
“We have turned that over about 19 times. We have lent out almost $30 million in our region, said Heidt, who said she has lost count of the number of business they have loaned money to. “We are getting close to 1,000 businesses, maybe more, and jobs, you can’t even think about the jobs.
The Wine Information Centre owes its success, in part, to one of those loans.
“Early on in the 90s, when the wine industry was really just getting known, the industry wanted to have a place to sell their wines and promote them,” said Heidt, explaining how Community Futures lent the new Wine Information Society the money to buy inventory for their first location at the Ramada Inn.
As the information centre grew, the relationship continued, with Community Futures arranging federal funding to help their current location at the corner of Railway and Eckhardt.
“Just that little bit of support to get going and to get their name out there and promote wines has really grown into something else. That wine information centre has helped build the whole wine industry,” said Heidt, noting that the Wine Information Society recently made a $300,000 donation to Okanagan College for the new Sensory Centre teaching facility.
“What started as a small loan … just keeps giving back.”
Community Futures will be celebrating its ongoing success on Oct. 14 with a gala at Okanagan College’s Centre of Excellence, with Michelle Rempel, minister of state for Western Economic Diversification, as special guest.
Small business loans is only one part of the Community Futures story, though. They also do a lot of community economic development work, like assisting with the Kettle Valley Railway and the SS Sicamous. In the early days, Heidt said, they realized there weren’t a lot of attractions in the area to go with the drive for tourism dollars.
“That’s when we started working with the government to bring in money to put into the Sicamous, Kettle Valley railway, but also we thought we needed to do some financing,” said Heidt. Financing, in this case, included funding the building of the still popular Casabella Princess, and helping out a family that wanted to build an adventure park: Loco Landing.
“They couldn’t get a bank to look at them. It was a brand new business and it was tourism, which didn’t have a lot of support from the banks. We stepped up and did one of our largest loans at that time and got them started. Within a year, the banks were knocking at the door,” said Heidt. “Now it has transitioned to the daughter [Diana Stirling] who has made it a real community gathering place.”
Community Futures is also responsible for setting up the Okanagan Film Commission, starting first by promoting the Okanagan’s wide variety of scenic locations as film sites, then hiring the first film commissioner and setting up the infrastructure, before letting it go as a standalone organization. Nowadays, that initial $1.5 million seed money has turned into about $5 million. Community Futures still receives a small amount of federal funding through Western Economic Diversification, but Heidt said even if that dried up, they would have to reduce operations, but would still be able to continue on.
“We have an asset that had the ability to earn revenue. The goal has always been self sufficiency,” said Heidt. “If the government walked away, we now earn enough revenue from our loan portfolio to help us continue to provide services. We now have the ability to continue on. I think that was always the vision.”