Nanaimo: how much meaning can be derived from this one word?

Nanaimo is the anglicized version of the Snuneymuxw’s First Nations namesake. It means “departure.” And this, I find, to be quite apt of a name for our lovely little town. And it is a town, no matter how hard it tries to be a big city.

Boy does it try, though! We have two of the largest (tallest) buildings on Vancouver Island. They are both right downtown along the waterfront, right next to several big holes. The Pacifica, the most recent and now tallest building on the Island, is just one building over from a great construction-idled depression, which is now overgrown. And this abandoned excavation site isn’t the only one in the downtown, or even in the city. These holes are scattered throughout Nanaimo, and most of them used to be buildings. But, as things go, old buildings are torn down and new ones thought up, yet somehow those new buildings rarely see their final stages and then become contentious points of discussion that bog the city down.

Let’s take the conference centre, for instance, and more pointedly the hotel that was supposed to have been built alongside the conference centre, with a nice, glassy walkway connecting the two. While the conference centre has been finished for a couple of years, the plot of land cleared and set aside for the hotel hasn’t been touched in years. Why? Because the original funders pulled out, and I can’t really blame them as Nanaimo’s downtown is already packed full of hotels that spend most of their time less than half full. Why would Naniamo need another hotel? Solely for the conference centre? Maybe, but that seems short-sighted.

Nanaimo is a transient town. We are located conveniently close to both Vancouver and Victoria, and an easy drive from major tourist attractions such as Tofino’s waves, Cathedral Grove’s old-growth trees, Parksville’s sandy beaches, and Coombs’s goat-roof. People drive through Nanaimo as they stutter off the ferries. And, to some degree, Nanaimo has still failed to notice or pay close attention to this transience.

Thanks to VIU, we also have a longer-term form of transience as well. Students from all over the country and the world come here to study and learn, languishing in the glorious views our campus has to offer while utilizing the effectiveness of the small-class learning styles. Students stay here for the duration of their studies, maybe returning home during the summer break, or maybe finding themselves a part-time job and sticking around for our mild weather. Either way, most of these students end up leaving.

So, why does Nanaimo keep trying to be a big city? We don’t have the agricultural base of the Fraser Valley close at hand, or the busy downtown business centre of Vancouver, or the historic signifigance and beauty of Victoria. Our history includes coal mining and a paper mill. Loggers, fishers, miners…the list could go on, I’m sure. We don’t mine coal anymore, and the mill still isn’t operating at peak capacity, so what does that leave Nanaimo job-base wise: tourism, service, and retail. That is not enough to keep a city going, or even a town, and that has been painfully evident over the past couple of years. In the summer of 2011, our unemployment rate was one of the highest in the country, and the following year it had recovered, but mostly because a lot of people had left. The confusing part to me is that Nanaimo is still building housing left, right, and centre. But where are those people going to work?

It’s a problem—one that I don’t see going away anytime soon. The “City” of Nanaimo needs to start rethinking its job stimulus plans, otherwise we may start seeing more restaurants—and other businesses—going the same way as The Modern Café, The Rendevous Diner, Front Street Grill, and Earls, and closing their doors.

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