Vancouver Commercial Real Estate Podcast

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November 17, 2021
VCREP #28: Why You Should Invest in Canada’s Next Big City with Anita Huberman

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Ever wonder what makes Surrey so attractive for both businesses and families? This week, Anita Huberman, President and CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade, joins Matt and Cory to discuss Canada’s next big major city and the driving forces behind it. If Surrey wasn’t on your list of places to invest in, it should be now after listening to this episode!

Anita breaks down all the economic drivers behind the massive growth of BC’s second largest city and what makes it attractive for so many developers. She also shares which areas of Surrey are next to boom that may not be at the forefront of the public eye just yet, which always makes for a great investment opportunity. Anita also shares some interesting stats when it comes to the age demographic of Surrey (hint: you haven’t yet missed the boat to invest in this booming city). Stats show that Surrey is on pace to become BC’s largest city or municipality by 2040. Whether you’re talking about industrial, office, retail or multifamily, Surrey is a place that should be high on everyone’s investment list!

Please tell us about yourself.

I’ve been the President and CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade for 15 years and with the organization for over 28 years. I also served in the Canadian Navy, on the National Film Board, and in a variety of community roles. We are Surrey’s city building organization so everyone can recognize the assets in Surrey. Surrey will be BC’s largest city very soon.

The brand of Surrey has transformed in the last 15 years. Has that surprised you?

It’s not surprising. It’s what we thought would happen. Vancouver, Burnaby and Richmond have geographic limits, whereas Surrey is still able to build out. So the transformation is not surprising. We knew it would happen thanks to population growth.

We have the most number of newcomers coming to our city compared to all other cities in BC. We have the most manufacturers in the province and a third of our population is under 19. We’re making Surrey an opportunity city to utilize all our assets and make it work for our diverse base.

What sectors are having an upward trajectory in Surrey as of late?

The knowledge and resource industries have really been ahead of the game in terms of pandemic economic recovery. We have a thriving forestry sector and 118 businesses that support the mining sector. On the knowledge side, we have our health, technology and education sectors. We’re meeting and exceeding pre-pandemic employment levels.

Our construction industry has also really thrived. The number one challenge has been finding labour. The demand is there. Surrey is growing and we’re building our own downtown core. The issue is getting people on the job.

It feels like Surrey is becoming a destination city.

Surrey has always been a destination city. The added component of UBC creates an education ecosystem alongside SFU, Kwantlen and private institutions. That blended ecosystem supports our business community.

It’s exciting to be in Surrey. We have challenges but we’ll meet them head on. People are looking at Surrey because you can live, learn, work and play within this region. By 2040, there will be another 1.3 million people moving into Metro Vancouver. The majority of them will be coming to Surrey and the South Fraser economic region.

Can we talk more about the challenges Surrey faces?

Because of our population growth, which continued even during the pandemic, housing is still an issue. Affordability is a problem. Surrey has a long way to go to keep pace with housing supply needs and ensuring there’s the right mix of housing to support our workforce ecosystem. Not everyone can afford a house or a condo, so we need to ensure there is quality purpose-built rental and different types of housing available. We need to utilize our land in the most productive way possible.

The number one issue is our growing pains. We can’t keep pace with our population growth. We’re way behind in terms of transit, education, healthcare and education investment. There’s been a lot of activity but we’re still playing catch up. We have a car culture in the middle of a climate change crisis. We don’t have a performing arts centre. We need significant infrastructure assets in our creative economy. That’s been a point of advocacy for the Surrey Board of Trade.

Besides Surrey Central, what areas in Surrey are you excited about?

The Campbell Heights development near 192nd and 16th Avenue South has been approved to be rezoned and bring in 135 new business and 20,000 new jobs. That is going to transform Surrey in partnership with the development community.

Developers are always seen as evil but they’re a foundation in economic development. They drive transit investment, housing investment and creative industry investment. You can work with developers to ensure mitigation against environmental challenges and other residential concerns. It can’t be an “us versus them” anymore.

Newton is an area we’re watching. It needs transit investment. It has the most number of businesses. Guildford is another area to watch with a lot of housing and retail investment. There are plenty of opportunities in Port Kells as well.

An area we’ve been pushing the city to transform is the Fraser River waterfront. On the Surrey side, we want to partner with First Nations to engage cohesively along the river. There are so many opportunities to make it a tourism destination and a job creator.

We’ve heard in the media about the difficult transition from the RCMP to a local municipal police force in Surrey. Is that as challenging as it appears to be in the media?

The Surrey Board of Trade from the beginning has said we don’t know what the costs are for this public safety infrastructure transition. We think the BC government made a mistake in approving this not knowing the impacts on their budget and on other BC communities. With the election next year, there’s a grassroots call for a referendum. Surrey has the largest RCMP detachment in Canada so this is no easy feat. Especially when we’ve had no added police officers since the last municipal election, despite continued population growth and continued challenges, this transition is not easy.

It’s not about changing the police force to reduce crime. Crime has gone down over the last three years. It’s about having a holistic investment and mechanisms for judicial reform. In our perspective, this transition shouldn’t have taken place and the money would have been better spent on economic infrastructure. This wasn’t an economic priority.

With the new hospital site in Cloverdale, what are you seeing in that market?

There is a lot of national and international attention on Surrey and it’s not just because of the new hospital in Cloverdale. It’s also because of the health and technology district across from Surrey Memorial Hospital. Three towers have been built and five are still to come. We’re working with other countries and national partners to bring in new technology businesses and solutions. It’s all happening here in Surrey in partnership with SFU, UBC and other education centres.

What are the biggest risks to Surrey’s growth?

The biggest risk is related to politics. We have to make sure the political paradigm is collaborating with the private sector. We all need to be at the table together and be creative with our thinking. We’re creating BC’s next big city. Every political level has to be able to engage with different communities and organizations to ensure economic success. That has been a challenge in local politics.

Transportation investment is the second biggest threat. How can we get people out of cars? It won’t just be skytrains; we need other types of transit technology, like light rail.

What are your thoughts on the pivot from the proposed light rail system to the skytrain expansion?

The shift was more of a regional focus. It was about how to move people from Langley into Vancouver and not about how to move within the city of Surrey. That’s what light rail technology would have done. It was state of the art technology that we’ve seen around the world. It included accommodations for cyclists.

Now the city is building skytrains through an area that is not densified. Housing is being built but we won’t see that skytrain until 2030. So again, we’re behind. Light rail would have been built by now and still needs to be a piece of the future. We can’t rely on this archaic and very expensive skytrain technology. We can’t keep going to the government so we will need private investments to get the light rail built. We need creative solutions.

How has covid impacted Surrey?

Many of our industries were considered essential during covid. We have seen great success in employment gain. The urban centres, like Vancouver and Surrey, will be successful beyond covid. The rural areas and small towns, at least in the short to medium term, will suffer when it comes to investment.

You mentioned a third of the population in Surrey is under 19 and 1200-1400 people per month are moving into Surrey. What other stats are notable and can you put that in context in terms of the larger region?

50% of our population has a mother tongue other than English and we have 104 different languages spoken in our city. Surrey is a city of families. Our geography is so significant in terms of allowing businesses to expand. Their workforce can have a balanced lifestyle, not spending as much time in traffic and spending more time with their families. Surrey is a border city. We have a diverse production cycle to support businesses and the most manufacturers in the province.

This appetite for risk is only happening in Surrey. We have to think differently than Vanvouver. We have to be progressive. We have to transform in an on-going way. That’s why people are looking at Surrey. The Surrey Board of Trade is transforming the brand of the city as a major institution within the provincial, national and international community.

What’s next for Surrey?

What’s next for Surrey is: another 15-17 downtown towers on King George Blvd; 200 new businesses moving into Campbell Heights; new transportation investments; and being on the international stage. This is the next Silicon Valley and technology centre. Surrey is exciting today and will be exciting tomorrow. We have our challenges but we’re not to be ignored anymore.

What advice do you have for listeners interested in getting into the Surrey market?

Whether you’re a new person entering the market or you’re experienced in this game, stick to your values. Make sure you’re looking at organizations, like the Surrey Board of Trade, to help facilitate the connections for you. Surrey is a huge city. No one realizes the diversity and complexity of our ecosystem until you’re in the city. We are not risk averse and it’s a very supportive ecosystem for developers.

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This communication is not intended to cause or induce breach of an existing agency agreement. E&OE: All information contained herein is from sources deemed reliable, and have no reason to doubt its accuracy; however, no guarantee or responsibility is assumed thereof, and it shall not form any part of future contracts. Properties are submitted subject to errors and omissions and all information should be carefully verified. All measurements quoted herein are approximate.