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One Year In: How the Courtenay Office is Staying Committed to Being Local

Just over a year ago, Jake Hughson launched Urban Systems’ Courtenay office to be able to provide better service for the communities on the central and the northern portions of Vancouver Island. At the time, the small office on 4th Street served as Jake’s home base and a satellite office for our other consultants supporting clients both in Courtenay and elsewhere in the area. One year in, how are things going “up-island”, and are hopes for the office being realized? The short answer–yes!

“We’ve gone from one to four in under 12 months,” Jake reveals. Shortly after the office opened, Jake was joined by Eric Sears, a fellow colleague from his time in Fort St. John, happy to come back to the ocean with his family. And while both Eric and Jake are pleased to return to their island roots, perhaps most exciting is the more recent additions of home-grown consultants Zack Haigh and Nolan deWitt. “A big part of why we have an office in Courtenay is to have that local presence. And by adding people that are local we are realizing that ultimate goal.”

Building on the Commitment to Courtenay

Nolan deWitt

Nolan joined Urban Systems as a Civil Engineer in early 2018 having always known that he would return to his home town after attending the University of Victoria. As an Engineer-in-Training, he has found himself in the fortunate role of being a part of a fairly high-profile project in his community. Working with Eric, he is an integral member of the team working on the 5th Street Complete Street project, upgrading the street to better accommodate walking and cycling on a highly traveled arterial.

“It’s pretty cool,” Nolan explains. “I’ve been driving up and down 5th Street for 25 years, and now I’m directly involved in massive upgrades to it. It’s definitely an incredible experience.” He finds it pretty powerful to being doing work he enjoys in a context where it has a direct impact on a place he has a personal connection to. And that connection is precisely why bringing Nolan into the team was so important.

“Even before we set up in Courtenay, Urban Systems had built a strong relationship with the city, and in order to provide better service to that client, and take our relationship to the next level, being local was a big part of it,” says Jake. Having had a similar experience while working in the Peace region, he saw the impact having people who have grown up in the community has on building relationships locally. There’s an inherent trust when you’re working with a consultant that understands the landscape of the community and can appreciate the values and challenges in the work. Not to mention the credibility it brings when people working with Nolan can see the pride he has in working on projects in the place where he’s grown up.

Finding Unexpected Gratification in Returning Home

Zack Haigh

Where Nolan was happy to return home after school, if you had told 17-year-old Zack he would return to Courtenay after graduating as a Planner, he would have scoffed. But after spending time in Victoria and Vancouver, and the inevitable change in priorities age can bring, he returned to Courtenay with his husband and joined the local office in April 2018. Even becoming a planner was an unexpected turn; “I kind of stumbled into planning after the encouragement of a close friend that worked for the Comox Valley Regional District. I had a bit of realization and my path opened up in front of me, like, ‘This is what I am meant to do for the rest of my life.’”

Zack’s addition to the team aligns with Eric’s vision for the office as being the hub for servicing the smaller communities on the north island. “We want to stay small-as in client small,” he reveals. “For Jake and I, that’s where we come from and that’s our comfort zone.” Eric identifies that there are a lot of communities on the island that are underserved, and the office is positioned in a way that they can provide a valuable service as consultants who understand what life is like locally. Zack’s roots in Courtenay are an asset when he approaches work with smaller island communities, because he has an appreciation for the kinds of solutions that will make sense to residents and local governments.

Following his passion into a planning career has also meant the incredible opportunity to work with nearby Indigenous communities, specifically Quatsino, Wei Wai Kum and K’omoks First Nations. “Working with Indigenous communities wasn’t necessarily something that I sought out but was just open to and it’s been exciting,” Zack shares. “I think there’s so much inherent flexibility when planning with a Nation because they just want to try different things and experiment, whereas in other communities, there are generally more established ways of doing things that are harder to break away from.” With 36 First Nations north of Nanaimo (including the Sunshine Coast) there is an incredible opportunity to support these communities and the various levels of needs, and Zack is excited to be able to explore these possibilities while developing his practice in the process.

Being a Part of That Change

Ultimately, the small office of four is eager to build on the success the last twelve months have presented and become an asset to communities throughout the central and north island. “There’s such a diversity of needs on the island,” Jake points out, “and being a valuable resource to those needs is really important.” During his time in Fort St. John, he and Eric watched as high school summer students returned to work in that office after graduation and are building meaningful careers, and they want Courtenay to be that platform for success for young professionals on Vancouver Island as well.

“I’m also really proud to be able to plan on the island,” says Zack. “I just think it’s so incredibly cool because the Valley is changing, and our office gets to be a part of that. It’s really exceptional to have opportunities here. We don’t have to be in Vancouver or Edmonton to be planners and engineers, and I think that’s pretty special.

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