Town at a crossroads
Residents recognize Squamish’s potential but struggle over how best to reach it
By Alan Forsythe
Travelling Highway 99, one becomes aware they have entered the District of Squamish by the sudden appearance of fast food outlets that dot the highway.
The string of hamburger, taco and chicken joints may not represent the true face of Squamish, but they leave an impression on passers-by. And like those who never take the time to look at a book beyond its cover, passers-by never see any more of Squamish than what lies along the highway.
I for one admit to being guilty of overlooking Squamish. In the thousand-plus times I have driven the Sea to Sky Highway I have never failed to wonder at the beauty of the Howe Sound or the sheer granite face of the Chief. But despite that I never considered Squamish as much more than a place to stop and fill up the gas tank or grab some fast food.
Squamish is a small town, but with a population of over 16,000 it is almost twice the size of Whistler. What it does have in common with Whistler is its incredible natural setting — many would say more beautiful than Whistler — and great access to outdoor recreation.
So why then is Whistler a tourist Mecca and Squamish primarily an industrial town, with signs of urban sprawl beginning to blight its natural assets? Well as Karen Hobson, manager of the Squamish Chamber of Commerce, says: "Whistler had a blank slate to work from, we had a logging industry and a community long before there was a Whistler."
But she adds, "We’re a lifestyle community, we don’t want to be another Whistler."
A town’s origin and its past goes a long way toward explaining its present, which in Squamish’s case is a town whose primary industry is logging. But tourism and outdoor recreation are thought by many to be a big part of future plans for the area. Hobson agrees tourism has huge potential, but says: "A lot of people don’t know what’s here, we don’t have the marketing dollars of Whistler."
Lately there has been talk of a private university and a new ski resort for Squamish, not to mention a soon to be unveiled community plan promising high-tech business parks surrounded by affordable housing, all five minutes from some of the best rock climbing, windsurfing, mountain biking etc. in North America. But some see the recent decision by Squamish council to allow G.B.A. Logging to build a wood chip storage facility close to downtown Squamish as flying in the face of proposed plans to revitalize the area.
"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and then expecting change," says Barbara Cummings, who runs the Garibaldi Adventure Centre and sits on the adventure festival committee. "People are very frustrated."
But she still thinks tourism will eventually boom and notes that the tourism industry in B.C. is starting to take notice of Squamish. Cummings describes the Howe Sound Inn and Brewing Company as the sort of business that many locals would like to see more of in the downtown area. It’s not hard to see why.
The pub is located off a warm rustic lobby and features a stone fireplace and large rough-hewn timbers. Proprietors Steve Chard and David Fenn opened the brew pub in 1996, although they first looked at the area in 1992 when a city official sold them on the Mamquam Blind Channel plan.
First published in the fall of 1991, the Mamquam Blind Channel plan promised a revitalization of the downtown and the inland waterfront and the beginning of the area’s transition from a forest industry town to a tourist one. But aside from the brewpub and inn, not much else has been built.
"We knew we were ahead of our time, but we’re hoping Squamish catches up," says Chard.
One of the obstacles to redevelopment in Squamish is land: who owns it and what it can be used for. BC Rail controls many of the critical pieces of the pie, as does International Forest Products. The wood chip facility was deemed by Squamish town council to be "light industrial", which matches the zoning on the site. However, those opposed to the wood chip facility feel it is "heavy industrial" and therefore incompatible with the zoning. A legal challenge has been discussed.
Chard points out that one of the major problems they faced in trying to open their business, was finding land. Not that there is a shortage — far from it — but it seems most of the land owners are sitting on their respective parcels, waiting to see which way the town goes.
"I really hope the university locates downtown. We're desperate for a focal point, there are a lot of closed businesses," Chard says.
Asked how he feels the wood chip storage facility might affect any future plan to revitalize downtown Chard says: "To have this thing come up has people questioning whether Squamish is really heading in a new direction." Although he adds: "I'm not anti-logger, I've never seen it as ‘us versus them.’ Eco tourism will take hold, but it will take a lot of up-front money and energy before things happen, right now it's a few people taking small steps.
"Out of towners are starting to recognize this as a jewel, but no one seems to know where to begin or how, we almost have too much potential."
Shabbir Dhalla, president of the Squamish Chamber of Commerce, echoes those sentiments and feels the town is progressing but not as far and as fast as he would like to see.
"We have a lot of talkers, not doers and we are still a long way from being considered a destination," Dhalla says.
He mentions increased tourism and outdoor recreation as things he would like to see happen, but also attracting high-tech businesses to the region and creating a deep sea port on the site "b" BC Rail lands. Wonderful plan, but so far just that, a plan.
Brent Leigh of Squamish Enterprise and Economic Development (SEED) is the architect of Squamish's latest plan for revitalization. Asked what exactly happened with the Mamquam Blind Channel plan, rolled out almost 10 years ago, Leigh says: "Nothing."
So why will the next one, the Downtown Revitalization Strategy as it is to be called, be any different?
"Many of the land issues have been ironed out and BC Rail and Interfor have bought into the plan," Leigh says.
Although he does add that the land trades, which would in effect activate the plan, are still under negotiation. In fact, the Official Community Plan released in 1998 was supposed to deal with the land issues still under discussion today.
Plans for the university and where it might locate are under "active negotiation," as Leigh puts it, but he can’t promise how or when they will proceed.
So speculation aside, what would he, as the economic development officer, like to see happen? Like Dhalla he mentions a high-tech business park, which would be close to homes and recreation. The infrastructure is there, with a high capacity fibre optic line already in place and a second one well on its way (being laid along the BC Rail line). It’s an interesting idea — wide bandwidth rather than widened freeways. But will people go for it?
"Why not? Wouldn’t you want to live five minutes from all that Squamish has to offer year round, and 45 minutes from Whistler and all they have to offer?"
All that plus affordable housing. It sounds pretty good, but realistically Squamish isn’t going to change from a logging town to a high-tech play ground overnight, or in the next few years for that matter.
"No it’s not, and forestry is going to be an economic driver here forever," confirms Leigh. "But there is work being done to rationalize and improve forest operations."
But as councillor (and at the time of this writing acting mayor) Shelley Smith says, while a high-tech business park has been considered by the town council as a possible future development, it is not part of the Down Town Revitalization Strategy. An artisans market and a boardwalk along the Mamquam Channel are the most talked about aspects of the new plan, which revolves around bringing people off the highway and into the downtown area. The idea is to make the downtown an attractive place for people to meet and as such encourage retail shops, cafes and restaurants to locate there.
Smith admits the key to the plan is land held by BC Rail (the waterfront) and Interfor (Loggers lane) and those aspects of the strategy are still under negotiation. But she remains optimistic.
"I see the next few years as a chance to live up to our potential," Smith says.
Potential — there’s that word again and it seems to be a driving theme in Squamish at the moment. Talking with people in and around Squamish, one can feel a strong sense of community, which may be the town’s biggest asset. And driving down Cleveland Avenue on a sunny afternoon one can see why local inhabitants care so passionately about their town — it can seem idyllic.
But on the other hand one can’t help but notice the closed and boarded up storefronts. There are no Guess or Gap outlets among the retail shops that are open. Instead there are one of a kind owner-operated stores, which as Karen Yaremkewich, chair of the merchants association, says is more of what they hope to attract in the future. Furthermore, she feels that a big box retailer such as Mountain Equipment Co-op or Canadian Tire would not be successful in Squamish.
Whether that is realistic remains to be seen. Still, Yaremkewich is convinced that small specialty retail will not only survive in Squamish, but will help draw people off the highway and into the downtown area.
Asked if she sees the town moving away from forestry to become more of a tourist town, she says that while on the face of it Squamish may seem to be very polarized, there is no reason why the two industries can’t co-exist.
There is no doubting that Squamish is a town with (as was repeatedly stressed) a great deal of potential. But there is also no doubt that it is at a crossroads. While one may hope for peaceful, prosperous co-existence between traditional industry and tourism, whether that is possible has yet to be determined.
An example of this crossroads might be the proposed deep-sea port. It is almost universally considered a positive development for Squamish but there are different visions: some proponents see it as a berth for cruise ships, others see it in a more industrial light and imagine a facility for large freighters, which would require expanded BC Rail capacity in order to be properly serviced.
Could it be both? It seems the biggest problem with having a lot of potential is deciding how to fulfill it.
Some quick facts about Squamish:
o Stawamus Chief, second largest granite monolith in the world (the first being The Rock of Gibraltar).
o West Coast Railway Park boasts the second largest collection of vintage rolling stock and railway artifacts in Canada.
o Considered the top rock-climbing destination in Canada (one of the top five in North America).
o Squamish River Estuary – one of the "true working" estuaries remaining in North America.
o Holds the world record for the largest congregation of Bald Eagles in one area (2,607 last year, although down from 3,766 in 1994).
o Considered one of the top five places to wind surf in North America.
o Chosen to be the sight of the first ever Intergalactic Mountain Bike Chariot Race.