Everywhere you look in Squamish, the iconography of change is front and centre. Work boots, sawdust and forklifts: these things form the cavalry of a different — and hopefully better — tomorrow.
But before the horsemen came the strategists. In Squamish, the central agency for change plots the future at the end of a poorly lit hallway in the Adventure Centre. The Squamish Sustainability Corporation (SSC) is a District entity headed up by Brent Leigh, an author and academic. If summed up on a bumper sticker, the SSC’s motto might be expressed along the lines of resist, diversify or die.
The mill is now a memory, and the pressure is on. The solutions, luckily, are manifold. Squamish’s natural and engineered assets are plentiful, and, even though it’s sometimes overlooked amid the long shadows of Whistler’s massive marketing machinery, the town’s verve is drawing new acolytes every day.
“One of the things I’ve found in the past six months is that so many people are saying Squamish is hip,” Leigh said. “A lot of people like a place that’s authentic.”
He points to the residential development community as an example. Residential construction is rampant, especially downtown. The buildings are posh and polished, and the markets they were intended to serve were targeted somewhere beyond the town’s perceived identity.
“They thought their market was this Whistler wannabe or this Whistler worker,” Leigh says. “What they’ve found is their market has shifted from this Whistler wannabe to this Squamish wannabe. They just start to make this transition that they’re building homes for residents rather than timeshare owners.”
That transition is catching. When the first nails went into Quest University, Leigh remembers people thinking the District of Squamish was engaged in futile self-deception. But then came the installation of a fibre optic network for the Olympics, and the idea of building a knowledge economy on the infrastructure took a very realistic hold in district planning.
Now, Quest could become an important component in training a workforce able to develop video games, engineer sports equipment or design animation. The fact that Squamish happens to be so close to an international airport only sweetens the deal.
For Leigh, that fibre optic line could amount to a more significant Olympic legacy than the highway.
Planning for downtown, meanwhile, is pacing the same pattern. The SSC would like new developments to be mixed use, with some floors designated residential, while others accommodate professional office space and retail outlets. Over time, amenities become localized, and car culture begins to ail, an effect that builds further on the town’s desirability.
To some, that vision might be a bit too haughty. The artsy, latte-loving, iPod set can be tedious and alienating, and their employment opportunities aren’t for everyone.
“I think one of the things that will keep the economy diversified is the land base,” Leigh said.
And so the BC Rail north yards and the Cheekeye Fan offer zoning opportunities to set-up value-added manufacturing industries, things that find their profits in resource-based development.
Meaningful and lasting change takes time — after the cavalry comes the clean-up, and after that the cultural transition. Just the same, once the sawdust settles and the athletes all fly home, Squamish will still have payrolls, families and futures.
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