The province is looking into lending the international trade business a helping hand following a lobbying effort that involved the government's former top bureaucrat. Last week, the ministry of transportation and infrastructure quietly announced it was searching for a consultant to study the pros and cons of establishing location-specific foreign trade zones in British Columbia.
A foreign trade zone is a location where tariffs are reduced or eliminated and goods can be stored duty or tax-free. Such zones already exist near Winnipeg's James Armstrong Richardson International Airport and at Gander International Airport in Newfoundland.
However, there are none in British Columbia - something "visiting foreign delegations and numerous port-related companies" have commented on, according to a government procurement document released on February 22.
The government has stated those zones - which are favoured by such companies - "could" increase British Columbia's "competitiveness in global markets and attractiveness as a gateway for international trade and encourage new economic activity."
But the government will also be examining whether those zones could result in a loss or deferral of government revenues, as well increase regional disparities if one was established in Vancouver but not elsewhere in the province.
The announcement of that study follows a lobbying effort that involved Premier Gordon Campbell's former deputy minister Ken Dobell, who is now British Columbia chair of a government relations firm Hill and Knowlton Canada Inc.
In an email, a spokesperson for GCT Global Container Terminals Inc. confirmed Mr. Dobell - along with his colleague Tamara Little - has been communicating with the government regarding foreign trade zones on behalf of the company.
GCT, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, is one of North America's largest container terminal operators. Those terminals include TSI Vanterm in Vancouver and Deltaport at Robert's Bank.
GCT corporate communications director Lori Jackson stated the company isn't specifically looking at establishing a foreign trade zone in British Columbia. Instead, it's pushing for a federal foreign trade zone program that could be activated anywhere in Canada.
Indeed, at a federal level, four Hill and Knowlton lobbyists are presently registered to work on the file for GCT. But Ms. Jackson also confirmed an industry steering committee chaired by CGT has proposed setting up a small agency that would implement and market a foreign trade zone initiative in Metro Vancouver.
She stated that proposal is preliminary and would entail $5 million in funding over five years. According to the government procurement document, that funding would be provided by "federal, provincial and local agencies."
But it remains to be seen whether the province will act on that proposal.
A government spokesperson stressed Ottawa controls the policy levers to allow for the establishment of location-specific foreign trade zones and that "no decision" has been made on the issue "and one will not be made in the short term."