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Powell River is in talks with Sino Bright, a private-school chain in China, to open a new school with dormitories.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

A rural B.C. school district is hoping to embark on a venture with a private-school chain in China to bring hundreds of students into the district, with a new school and dormitories to be provided by the Chinese company.

Powell River's partnership with Sino Bright, still working its way through different sets of approvals, appears to be the first of its kind in British Columbia and possibly in Canada.

It's also just one of the Chinese-backed ventures that Powell River's mayor is hoping will revive the once-heavily industrial and resource-based community.

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"At one time, we had the largest pulp and paper mill in the world, with 2,700 employees and 10 paper machines. That's now down to two," Mayor Dave Formosa said. "We had a lot of mining on Texada Island. That's way down. The salmon fishing is gone. The industrial revolution is over. But now we're in a happy place."

Sino Bright president Quan Ouyang did not respond to requests for an interview.

Besides the Sino Bright venture, the city has seen a major investment in a shellfish hatchery by Xi Ping Ding, who founded Hummingbird Cove Lifestyles Ltd. Powell River is also hoping to become the site of a collection of satellite campuses for major Chinese universities.

The owner of private Eton College in Vancouver, Shih-tao Lu, has bought a large chunk of waterfront land in this coastal town, two ferry rides from the Lower Mainland, and has been taking Chinese education officials through the site, the mayor said.

Greg Cran, Vancouver Island University's Powell River campus administrator, said the school has already partnered with Eton on a two-year tourism certificate program and is awaiting further developments on the waterfront site.

Both projects are a sign of the growing interest by private Chinese education ventures, and the investors backing them, in expanding beyond their own country. And they appear to be a new phase in B.C.'s efforts to tap into the international education market.

For at least three decades, the province's school districts, colleges and universities have been adding to their budgets by energetically recruiting international students, who pay hefty fees.

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In 1995, B.C. created a certification program for offshore schools, which use provincial curriculum and B.C.-certified teachers. There are now 45 offshore schools certified by the Ministry of Education, with 35 in China. Sino Bright runs two of those and has another 10 that are not certified.

Now, Powell River appears to be the first landing pad for Chinese companies looking to build schools here that are partnered with local public-education institutions.

"We've been told there is an attraction to Powell River because it is safe and there are fewer distractions," said the city's chief administrative officer, Mac Fraser. "We don't have fast cars and nightclubs. It's a place where the parents of these students feel better."

Powell River was recognized by the 2016 Guinness World Records as having the least polluted air of any city in the world, school superintendent Jay Yule said. That has added to its attractiveness for parents wanting to get their children out of smog-filled Chinese cities.

While Powell River is a first for this kind of venture in Canada, the idea has already gained some traction in the United States. Another large chain in China called Weiming Education Group, which has 42 schools and 40,000 students in China, has already set up a private-public partnership with Michigan schools.

This week, it is generating attention because of its plan to buy a University of Connecticut satellite campus in West Hartford, Conn., for $12.6-million and run it as a high school jointly with the local school district, according to a report in The Boston Globe this week.

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That plan has run into opposition from local residents, and one city councillor who objects to the idea has noted that schools are a public resource that shouldn't be for sale to private companies.

But so far, city and school district officials in Powell River see nothing but benefits. "We've had declining enrolment," said Mr. Yule, the superintendent. "We can share electives, so we can continue to have the scope of programming. People are pretty excited, but we can't get ahead of ourselves."

Mr. Formosa said 20 people showed up to the most recent stage of the rezoning process last week, while about 50 went to an open house this week. "Out of a town of 22,000, that's good news," he said.

While some are concerned that Powell River's house prices might shoot up, like Vancouver's, and others are opposed to cutting down trees on the site, most people seem be happy with the way Powell River's new economy is developing, Mr. Formosa said.

The city has gone partway through a process of rezoning the land that Sino Bright wants to buy, which is a piece of land formerly owned by the Catalyst Mill that was transferred to joint ownership of the city and the Tla'amin band.

The 54-hectare parcel, which is in the middle of town and sits next to Powell River's existing high school, is also in the Agricultural Land Reserve and will need approval to be removed.

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