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Port Renfrew on the brink of discovery

The wilderness is what Port Renfrew is all about. - Ariah Cummings
The wilderness is what Port Renfrew is all about.
— image credit: Ariah Cummings

Port Renfrew. On first glance, it appears to be an accidental splatter of about 200 surfers, fishermen, and tree huggers all living in an unorganized sprawl. Which is to say that there’s no “downtown” per se, although there is a school, business centre, store and library. Here, and there, and over yonder. It is also home to the Pacheedaht First Nation, who according to Aboriginal Affairs have 121 members living on reserve lands in Port Renfrew, with a total registered population of 268.

Anyway you cut it, the numbers are small.

But if you lift that up just a tiny corner of that lazy hazy blanket, you might just discover a vibrant, growing community that is at the brink of being discovered by the outside world.

According to Karl Ablack, the Director/Sales of Live Port Renfrew, it’s a community ready to explode into a fully fledged profitable tourism town.

“We’re on the precipice,” said Ablack, “and things are going to really begin to catapult … within the next two years.”

As far as population growth, Ablack sees the opportunity for telecommuters, remote labourers (as in Fort MacMurray), and young families interested in capitalizing in one of the remaining affordable places on the island to buy a home. VancouverIsland.com puts the population at 190.

And there’s work to be had too, albeit seasonal.

“If you want work, come up here,” said Rosie Betsworth, referencing the many season opportunities in the tourism industry. Betsworth is the former president of Port Renfrew’s chamber of commerce, business woman, and currently works with Ablack on the Live Port Renfrew project.

“There’s a lot of need for trades up here,” said Ablack, referencing the last few years of development seen in their community.

The tourism industry appears to be booming.

“I’ve got rental cabins. We’re sitting at about 85 - 87 per cent occupancy for the summer,” said Betsworth. “This is the best summer we’ve had so far, and I think it’s just because Renfrew is finally on the map.” Betsworth refers to the glossy Port Renfrew flier that lists over 25 accommodations, over 10 fishing charters, and campsites, marinas, restaurants, stores and other businesses in town.

“People are coming faster than the services are,” observed Dan Hager, president of Port Renfrew’s Chamber of Commerce. Hager is also a member of the Live Port Renfrew group.

Key to the growth in the tourism industry in Port Renfrew, speculate all three, is the completion of the Pacific Marine Circle Route (complete in 2009). The construction of the Sombrio Bridge #1 has also helped straighten the road, making it less hazardous to travel. In total, over $20 million in improvements have tremendously benefitted the little town of Port Renfrew.

A 2012 pamphlet from the Port Renfrew Development Fund speculated that some of the interest might be driven by the development of an iron ore mine near Port Renfrew, known as the Pearson Project. A 2013 document from the B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines reports, “Reconnaissance work began in 2013 and the Ministry of Mines is processing a Notice of Work that includes drilling. The vendor, Pacific Iron Ore Corp published an inferred resource for the Bugaboo Creek area in 2011 consisting of 14.3 million tonnes averaging 60% magnetite at a cut off of 20% magnetite.”

The Pacific Iron Ore Corporation’s website reports that as of March 31, 2011, the Pearson Project had “285 claims on Vancouver Island cover a combined 170,648 hectares. These are split 266 claims and 162,420 hectares for the Port Renfrew Block and 19 claims and 8,228 hectares on the unexplored northern claims.”

Our requests for comment to the Pacific Iron Ore Corporation went unanswered, so there is no confirmation or denial of a possible mine in the Port Renfrew vicinity.

But whatever the driving force, the recent road improvements are indeed driving many tourists to Port Renfrew, say the three from the Live Port Renfrew project.

Which has in turn created a very furtive environment from business start-ups. The opportunities may exist for those willing to take a chance.

Be forewarned though, the entrepreneurial gains won’t be instant, said Hager.

“They’re not going to make money like that,” says Hager, snapping his fingers to make the point. “They have to go in with some cash and get set up. And sit there and wait. Because they are coming.”

And according to this group, they have already been found by tourists. By many, locally and from afar. And business has been year-round. Hager co-owns Handsome Dan cottages together with France Turcotte. Business is booming, year round, at the cottages. Hager estimates that over the winter months, they are at 70 per cent capacity.

But for all its anticipated growth, its magic is in the wilderness. Port Refrew is the gateway to many hiking trails, freshwater and ocean fishing, surfing, kayaking and canoing, crabbing, whale watching and bird watching. There are a number of beaches for day trips and camping. And Port Renfrew is also home to the Davey Derby and the Tall Tree Festival.

Betsworth, Ablack and Hager all see a clear opportunity for Port Renfrew to position itself as a natural destination similar to Tofino, but much, much closer. It’s pristine wilderness sits at the doorsteps of Victoria, only about two hours away.

“It’s raw, unfiltered nature,” said Betsworth. “People get a chance to relax out here.”

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