Furry Creek — Spawning A New Community
By Stephen Vogler
If you drive past Furry Creek on the Sea To Sky Highway, you'll notice two lonely houses perched above the golf course. With spectacular views of the fairways, the waters of Howe Sound and the islands beyond, they are the first homes in the new golf course community of Furry Creek. So far there are no neighbours, no children playing on the grass, no store or post office. But if all goes according to plan, these will arrive with the next phase of the development.
Pre-planned communities like Furry Creek are springing up all across British Columbia and North America. Developers are heading outside of the urban centres and creating new towns from scratch, often centred around golf courses or other recreational amenities. Unlike their suburban counterparts, the new communities are small and self contained and strive to maintain a rural atmosphere.
With golf growing by 20 per cent per year in North America, computer technology allowing people to work outside of the city, and empty nesters looking for a relaxing retirement atmosphere, it's not surprising that golf course communities are taking off.
But just over the hill, to the north of Furry Creek, sits Britannia Beach, a legacy of an earlier wave of small towns that swept the province. In the late 19th and early 20th century, towns sprang up like mushrooms after a fall rain, but in those days it was gold, silver and copper that brought people out of the cities. In 1938 the mine at Britannia employed 1,324 people and supported a thriving community both at the beach site and the town site above. (There was also a Japanese camp at Furry Creek, seven miles up from tide water). Like most company towns, Britannia Beach was extremely susceptible to changing market conditions. Each time the price of copper plummeted during the mine's 60 years of operation the town was virtually wiped from the map.
Sitting so close together on the shore of Howe Sound, it's interesting to ponder whether new towns like Furry Creek will avoid the boom and bust cycle that plagued Britannia Beach and other ghost towns in B.C. Britannia's economy, like most of the older communities in the corridor, was based on resource extraction. But the economy of newer communities like Whistler and Furry Creek is based on tourism and land development.
Alison Gill, acting director of the Centre of Tourism and Policy at Simon Fraser University, believes the real estate component of developments like Furry Creek is essential for a successful project. "In the beginning it has to be driven by economic viability," she says. "Part of the modern day approach to real estate is selling the land as a lifestyle," she adds. "The Sea To Sky Corridor is being marketed as an amenities corridor."
But at Furry Creek, it was the real estate component which got off to a rocky start. The developer, Tanac Land Development Corporation, a subsidiary of Tanabe Corp. of Tokyo, had already sunk $50 million into the project by the end of 1993 and only sold a few of the first phase of 24 lots. Shigenori Suzuki, president and CEO of Tanabe Corp., admitted in a January 1994 Province article that "business has been slow," and that matters haven't been as "exciting on the real estate front as they could have been."
Twenty-one lots from the first phase and two from the second phase have now been sold. Yet there are still only two houses built in the so-called community, a fact which might make prospective buyers leery if they are truly looking for a community in which to live. To remedy this problem, Tanac Land Development now requires buyers of second phase lots to build within two years.
The golf course has had its own problems since it opened in 1993. Designed by Robert Muir Graves, it has been criticized for its steep and rugged terrain (making power carts a necessity), its extremely narrow fairways, and its general level of difficulty. TLDC has been continually modifying the course to meet player demands. The $30,000 private and $65,000 corporate memberships were also seen as too high, and after only 50 of a possible 700 sold by 1994, the developer changed it from a private to a public course.
Despite all the set backs, many believe that Furry Creek and other similar developments will be a success. Harry Measure was formerly a development planner for the Resort Municipality of Whistler and now works as an architect and planner for John Kerrigan Sproule Architecture, a company that specializes in resort community planning. Measure, who is helping design other golf course communities in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island, believes Furry Creek will ultimately be successful because of its proximity to Vancouver.
Retirees who are ready to sell their home in the city and spend their sunset years golfing and relaxing are likely to make up a large part of the market. But Measure also sees other trends. "A lot of money will soon be passed onto the next generation," he says. "As baby boomers inherit this money, they might want to buy a second recreational home in a place like Furry Creek." He also envisions some younger people moving into these communities, cutting down on their work week and utilizing communications technology to work from their home.
The developers of Furry Creek hope that the planned marina and town centre on the shore of Howe Sound will provide a focus for the community and help attract prospective buyers. This phase of the development will include shops, restaurants, a 900-person lodge, single family homes and condominiums. Shigenori Suzuki says, "The village will give a sense of community and I think it will help buyers feel there is real value at Furry Creek."
Measure believes this is the right approach. "Developers are starting to understand what social factors need to be included — mixes of people, recreational and cultural activities." A golf course clubhouse is not enough to support a social network, he says, adding that: "very few pre-planned communities have been done properly, but developers are getting more educated." At Semiahmoo Resort, in Washington, Kerrigan Sproule suggested building townhouses to attract younger people to the resort community. Having only retirees is "not a community," Measure says, "it's a collection of people."
Other pre-planned communities have also been criticized for lacking character and a sense of community. Large corporations like Disney, Mobil and Arvida are building pre-planned communities across the United States and marketing them as "a hometown, rather than merely a house," and "playing on people's fear of crime, nostalgia for small town life and longing for community," says a May 1995 Wall Street Journal article. In the same article, former residents of Weston, Fla. said that restrictions on everything from what colour their houses could be to how many dogs they could own lent an artificial air to the community.
Because of its proximity to the city, it is possible that Furry Creek will simply become a bedroom community for Vancouver. With only a 45-minute commute to downtown Vancouver — shorter than that of many Fraser Valley communities — and a spectacular mountain and ocean setting, it is undeniably a beautiful place to return to after a busy day downtown. But Gill cautions that bedroom communities have their own problems creating a sense of community. "During the daytime their population leaves," she says. With only the evenings left to spend in the community, there is much less time to socialize and get to know the neighbours. "Such communities have difficulty developing a sense of belongingness... of integration and cohesion," says Gill.
Another situation which could hamper the development of a true sense of community at Furry Creek is if people buy as an investment rather than as a home. Even with the two-year building requirement on second phase lots, houses that sit empty waiting for the market value to appreciate do not generate a sense of community.
With only two houses standing and 23 lots sold out of a possible 920 lots and townhomes, Furry Creek has a long way to go before such concerns become relevant. Eventually the lots and condominiums will sell and some sort of community will begin to form. Perhaps in a few years there will be a post office and a cultural centre and passers-by will see children playing on the grass.
But what I'm really curious about is, in 50 or 100 years — once our economy has gone through another round of inevitable and unforeseeable change — which towns will remain on a map of the Sea To Sky Corridor, and which community will be bigger, Britannia Beach or Furry Creek?