Sitting in the Blue Moose Coffee House in downtown Hope, Stephanie Hooker rubs her hands over a binder containing presentation notes for AdvantageHOPE’s Annual General Meeting (AGM), which was held at the end of April.
Hooker, the economic and tourism organization’s asset development coordinator, has spent the last two years of her career living and breathing the management of the Rural Dividend Fund (RDF). And while the efforts of all her hard work is summarized in black and white between the binder’s covers, Hooker’s passion and enthusiasm for the project is evident the moment she begins speaking.
“The best part about this whole project really was the partners and stakeholders, and so many people working so hard to make these things happen,” she said, pointing to the binder.
“People were really willing to put skin into the game (and) we wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. So many committed people who (understand the vision for Hope’s future) really stepped up.”
In 2009, Hooker was part of the original group of volunteers who helped create the vision for what is now known as AdvantageHOPE. Created and funded by the District of Hope, AdvantageHOPE, which is managed by a Board of Directors and five members from the District Hall, is a purpose-built entity that’s only goal is facilitating the economic development strategies outlined in Imagine: 2040, Hope’s Integrated Official Community Plan (IOCP).
“We are the change bringers,” Hooker said. “And transition and change can be scary, which is why AdvantageHOPE can be contentious for some people, but we’re just here to help transition the community” to its economic future.
To help make that happen, Hooker applied for the Rural Dividend Fund in 2016, and it was accepted. Over the course of the next two years, nearly half a million Fund dollars trickled down from the province into Hope, which AdvantageHOPE was able to leverage into nearly $1,000,000.
“Although the grant was quite large, it didn’t cover everything. The in-kind has been incredible,” Hooker explained.
As an example of an in-kind donation, at the AGM, Hooker shared with the audience that Shannon Jones, executive director for AdvantageHOPE, had donated more than 600 hours of her time to the RDF project. For perspective, that’s the same amount of work hours somebody needs to be eligible to collect Employment Insurance benefits.
“The efforts of our partners and the individuals (in our organization) is really significant,” Hooker continued. “It was only through working with our partners in an intense implementation of priority items were we able to get done all that we did.”
Administered by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, the RDF’s purpose is to help communities outside of Metro Vancouver with a population less than 25,000 reinvigorate and diversify their economies beyond natural resources.
For Hope, that’s meant using the Fund to focus on three broad categories that not only updated the community, making it more attractive for tourists, but also improved the quality of life for those already living in the area.
The first area of focus was destination amenity development, which takes a page from the movie Field of Dream: if you build it, they will come.
“It’s about destination tourism and amenity migration,” Hooker explained. First you attract people as tourists with lifestyle amenities—outdoor events, hiking trails, bike parks, disc golf course—then you recruit them as new residents.
“With our high-speed internet, we can attract the virtual commuter or the creative class. We’re not able to support a lot of large development—yet—but we’re attracting businesses to Hope.
“Since we began the project, reported business revenue on Stats Canada has increased, and the number of business licences in town has gone up. In 2009, we had a declining population and school enrollment was going down.
“Of course we’ve been successful because of the economic pressure from Vancouver, but also because we’ve been steering the ship with these plans,” said Hooker, tapping her binder again. “We want to grow our population but not jeopardize quality of life for resident locals.”
The second area AdvantageHOPE focused its RDF efforts was targeted section marketing, which is lifestyle marketing that occurs outside of Hope: running campaigns involving ads on buses in distant communities or marketing the Hudson’s Bay Company trail to people outside of the Fraser Valley “helps because it’s a travel motivator” to get people to Hope.
And the final area of AdvantageHOPE’s focus was attraction and outreach. “AdvantageHOPE speaks to the outside world (because) the bulk of what we do is (focused) on (people who live) outside of Hope. If you already live in Hope, you’re not going to see everything we do. The District of Hope and Chamber of Commerce are the inside voices (for the community).
“The largest portion (of the Fund’s money) went to amenity planning and development, though,” Hooker said.
Previously, much of the community’s signage was a “hodge-podge,” however, through the RDF, AdvantageHOPE was able to create community-wide signage that “unifies all the elements … and brings them to brand so they’re more effective.”
Included under the umbrella of signage are interpretive Kettle Valley Railroad (KVR) signs leading from the tunnels to town. “KVR, or the Othello Tunnels, is our biggest tourism draw,” Hooker said. “More than 150,000 visitors to that park alone last year.
“So to draw those people down through town, we’ve installed these posts to mark the route … and they have maps and history. Or, if in town, they’ll either walk or cycle out to the tunnels. (Projects like) this allow for unique things but still be on brand and be helpful to economic development.”
Following alone the idea of targeting people outside of Hope to grow the local economy, a new Hope website—which will be rolled out later this year—focusing on tourism, targeted outreach, and economic development was also created through implementation of the Fund.
“I’m really proud of all the foundational work we’ve done and there are years of work laid out to be implemented still that will make big changes, I think,” Hooker added with pride.
For more information about AvantageHOPE, visit HopeBC.ca/about.