A SENSE OF PURPOSE IS POWERFUL MOTIVATION: “The City of Nanaimo has a culture of commitment to community, risk-taking and innovation. But you really see the effect of good governance on the willingness to take risks,” stated Bill Sims, General Manager, Engineering & Public Works


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The edition published on November 1, 2022 is the story behind the story of how fixing a traffic problem at a major intersection morphed into a signature environmental and economic development project. This happened because the City of Nanaimo has a culture of commitment to community, risk-taking and innovation.

“The City of Nanaimo has a culture of commitment to community, risk-taking and innovation. But you really see the effect of good governance on the willingness to take risks.” – Bill Sims

The Midtown Gateway Project in the City of Nanaimo is transforming a legacy brownfield site impacted by past industrial activity into a revitalized neighbourhood gateway. It features new complete street transportation corridors, a restored and naturalized wetland with public walking trails, and enhanced access to the city’s premier recreation complex – Beban Park.

There are two stories behind this story

One is the technical story about how fixing a traffic problem morphed into a signature environmental and economic development project that achieved multiple beneficial outcomes. Even more compelling, however, is the story of the corporate culture within the City of Nanaimo which made the project possible.

There are several dimensions to the “story behind the story” of the corporate culture. First, the organization has historically embraced risk-taking because the guiding philosophy is “let’s do it right”. Secondly, there is the enduring resiliency of the organization.

Midtown Gateway Project

Bowen Road is a heavily used north-south corridor that connects downtown Nanaimo with central and north Nanaimo. After the Nanaimo Parkway (Island Highway) was constructed in 1997, the intersection of Bowen and Northfield soon became the busiest city-owned intersection. People use Northfield to get to and from the Nanaimo Parkway. The result is major traffic congestion.

The Midtown Gateway Project evolved from trying to solve a traffic problem at a busy intersection to cleaning up a legacy contaminated site from the coal mining era. A culture of risk taking has enabled the City of Nanaimo to resolve the traffic problem, restore a legacy brownfield, create a natural asset, open up a desirable area for a $70 million signature development, and recover its upfront costs.


“Listening to Bill Sims tells the story of the Midtown Gateway Project, I found his narrative to be compelling. This is great stuff, I thought. He provides a window into the people side of local government. In the process, he highlights a guiding principle which is commitment to a higher purpose, something called the common good,” stated Kim Stephens, Waterbucket eNews Editor and Partnership Executive Director.

“The ‘story behind the story” is structured in two parts. In Part One, Bill Sims provides a project overview. In Part Two, he elaborates on the risk-taking culture within the City of Nanaimo. First, however, I urge readers to reflect on the following words of wisdom that Bill Sims shared with me. These thoughts establish context for his story.”

Why the Midtown Gateway Project?

Bill Sims says, “you follow your interest, and you follow your sense of what is right and in the best interests of the community. You work that, and as you bring people along, things become a reality.”

“That is what happened here in Nanaimo with the Midtown Gateway Project. It was a whole bunch of staff who saw the value in this project. They kept working at it and pretty soon it became a reality.”

“In a risk-taking context, bringing forward an expensive project is uncomfortable for people. But once you have built a head of steam, and other staff members are on board, the project becomes more accepted.”

“And every time you are asked, why are we spending so much money, the answer is that it has evolved into a multi-faceted project. It began as let’s fix the capacity problem at Bowen and Northfield. Now it is a signature environmental and economic development project.”

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: The leveraging effect of respect and good governance on willingness to take risks within local government

“There is another piece to the story of the Midtown Gateway project,” says Bill Sims. “I am a big subscriber of start with the end in mind. But when we started with this project, we did not have this end in mind. Long story short, doing what is right opened up a number of opportunities.”

PART ONE: Midtown Gateway Project exemplifies risk-taking in practice

“The project started as a how do we fix the traffic problems that we have at Bowen and Northfield. The traditional engineering solution is build more lanes. But the intersection is constrained for a variety of reasons.”

“Over time, the concept evolved to extend a connector road parallel to Bowen, bypass the problem intersection and create a new one further to the north. But the alignment went right through a former wetland that had been filled with coal mining waste, construction debris, and all kinds of nasty stuff.”

“The question was, how do we improve this property so that the city can use it for traffic as well as create some good in the world?”

Why we are doing this project

“The corporation has this underlying culture of commitment to its community and innovation. When we have good governance at the Council level, that seems to allow staff a sense of freedom to live up to their responsibility, with creativity. In other words, take risks, although not in a financial sense; rather, risk-taking in thinking creatively,” Bill Sims emphasizes.

“And so, what is the right thing to do? In this case, it was recognizing that the legacy industrial wasteland was not going to be redeveloped any time soon. The land value would not justify private investment. And we had our own challenges with traffic. Let’s think outside the box, we said.”

“It was an expensive piece of property to purchase and remediate. But it still is the right thing to do. Nobody else was going to go to this level of remediation and create a wetland. And nobody else was going to put this into the overall mobility context.”

“Public investment in this area unlocked so much good – between improved transportation for all modes, restitution of a brownfield, immediate private investment in surrounding lands along with future potential.”

“This is a case of a number of staff coming together and saying how do we do this, and how do we do it right?”

PART TWO: City Council empowered commitment to the community, enabling staff creativity and innovation to emerge 

“The City of Nanaimo has a culture of commitment to community and innovation. But you really see the effect of good governance on the willingness to take risks,” reflected Bill Sims.

“In situations of poor governance, the momentum of the organization grinds to a halt. It is discouraging. However, the people who stay retain their sense of commitment. My experience is that the organizational culture transcends the people who are here. It is powerful.”

A sense of purpose is powerful motivation: 

“There is something within the culture of the City of Nanaimo that says I care about the people I work with; I care about my community; I care about doing the right thing. It is a sense of higher purpose that most of the staff seem to carry with them. During times of good governance, creativity re-emerges, and the momentum of the organization accelerates.”

“When Council is very careful to be respectful of staff, and always to be respectful in their own debates, it is startling how positive the effect is on the organization. Two things are in play. One is the corporate culture that seems to transcend the people who work for the city at any given time. And the other is the leveraging effect of governance on that culture,” concludes Bill Sims.

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About the Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC

Technical knowledge alone is not enough to resolve water challenges facing BC. Making things happen in the real world requires an appreciation and understanding of human behaviour, combined with a knowledge of how decisions are made. It takes a career to figure this out.

The Partnership has a primary goal, to build bridges of understanding and pass the baton from the past to the present and future. To achieve the goal, the Partnership is growing a network in the local government setting. This network embraces collaborative leadership and inter-generational collaboration.