After three and a half years as the face of the Fernie Chamber of Commerce, Brad Parsell is out and away to the coast, where he’s taking on a new role as the face of Tourism Tofino. The Free Press sat down for one last formal chat before Parsell and his partner loaded as much as they could into a ten-foot U-haul and hit the road.
When he came to the role of executive director of the local chamber, Parsell wanted to move the needle on housing the most. All these years later, that’s still on the docket for whoever replaces him, but there was a pandemic in between which forced him and the chamber front and centre as the community looked for leadership.
“There was definitely a period of the pandemic where my work-life and my life-life became pretty intertwined,” he said. “At the end of the day, the chamber exists to help businesses and there has never been a more existential threat to businesses than the pandemic.”
In that role the chamber became more than just a touch-point for businesses but the wider community too, but Parsell said his only option was to lean in and try to help, and that meant being reachable day and night, fielding questions about government responses above his pay-grade, and never being able to leave the house without getting caught in all manner of conversations on the street.
He laughs when asked if he’d do anything about the past few years in the role differently, but brushes it off. “I’m not sure I would have done anything differently,” he said.
“I was at the receiving end of some pretty nasty communication. A lot of people wanted the chamber to push back more on the government interventions to deal with the pandemic, but at the end of the day, like I said thousands of times, nobody was making decisions in Fernie – decisions were being made in Ottawa and Victoria, and all we were there to do was try to guide our members through a really weird time and point them to the right things.”
While the pandemic has simmered down to a constant presence rather than an emergency – at least in the eyes of the general public – housing has stuck around as a continual issue for Fernie and communities like it.
When asked if he felt much had changed when it came to housing and the community’s workforce issues, Parsell was blunt in his initial assessment, but hedged it by saying the community was in a better place to tackle the problem.
“I don’t think so, but I do think that what we did in the last three years or so was to try to remind local decision makers and organizations working on this issue that we are not alone, that there were other communities (facing the same issues) and we were not having to reinvent the wheel.
“I think the chamber has done a good job of pointing to some examples of other resort communities trying to deal with this problem. Hopefully that dialogue continues. I personally didn’t feel that there was enough urgency from the last leadership at the City of Fernie around housing. We all talked about it all the time, (but) very little was happening in terms of where the rubber met the road and that was definitely frustrating.
He did say things had improved behind the scenes, however. “To their credit the city has done some stuff in the background at least for market housing, to make the process smoother. But there’s also non-market housing, and we can’t just do a North End Court once every ten years, it’s not going to be enough.”
Looking back on his time as executive director at the chamber, Parsell said he was proud of all the non-pandemic work done.
“The board had some pretty ambitious goals when I first got there, and despite having a global pandemic thrown at us we’ve achieved a lot of those goals,” he said, listing the co-working space in downtown Fernie to support new and incubating businesses, the ‘workinfernie’ website to ‘honeypot’ workers into town, increased capacity and scope for the chamber and the projects that survived through the pandemic.
“For a little not for profit that doesn’t have a lot of financial input, it puts out a lot and punches above its weight. Whoever is the fortunate person who gets to take it over and run it for a while has a really solid foundation and some really cool stuff to work with, especially now we have a new mayor and council.”
Parsell had been finished at the chamber for well over a week as of writing, but he still had some words of wisdom for the future of Fernie.
“When I look around at other communities and what has been successful, fortune seems to favor those who work together and harness the expertise and the resources that they have towards a shared goal. During the pandemic we were divided and there was a lot of finger pointing. If I could say anything, it would be that everyone should get back together and work on the shared goals (for Fernie). We have the talent to make it happen.”
Parsell starts as executive director of Tourism Tofino on November 28.
“I’m super excited about this new chapter and this opportunity… (but) there’s a lot involved in moving from one side of the province to the other,” he joked.
“We’re going to miss a lot of people.”
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