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Feature - Paving the way to the future

$600 million in upgrades to the Sea to Sky Highway will service more than Whistler and the 2010 Olympics

The Sea to Sky Highway has always been controversial. In the beginning engineers shook their heads at the idea of ever making the Horseshoe Bay-Squamish highway into four lanes. A road foreman in charge of maintenance for 30 years said he wouldn’t live anywhere near the highway.

But a lot of people live in the Sea to Sky corridor, and more are coming – regardless of whether the 2010 Olympics are awarded to Vancouver-Whistler or not. The Games bid was the catalyst for the $600 million in highway improvements planned between 2004 and 2009, but based on development commitments already made in Furry Creek and Squamish, the volume of traffic on "the highway to Whistler" is going to increase.

Residents and business owners from Lions Bay to Brackendale are preparing for the growth, and for the financial hit they expect to take during highway construction.

On a Friday in March the Sea to Sky Highway is clear and dry. Semi-trucks loaded with 4x8 timbers and granite building stones back up traffic heading south. The Lions Bay General Store and Café is a welcome rest spot for travellers sitting on the outside deck drinking coffee and soaking up the springtime sunshine.

Karin Dodd works at the post office inside the store. Dodd and her husband, Glen, moved to Lions Bay from North Vancouver eight years ago, joining residents who love the intimacy of their community and the proximity to nature. But, Karin is quick to talk about the need for improvements on the Sea to Sky Highway.

"I’ve just about been run off the road slowing down to get into my own town!" Dodd remarks, between serving customers coming in and out of the store.

Upgrading the highway and hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics would benefit the store but Dodd is not sure if the increased traffic and world wide attention is worth the trade-off.

"Losing our anonymity," she says frankly, when asked about the downside.

"All we could hope to gain from improvements is safety," Dodd says.

A little further up the highway a light Squamish wind sends whitecaps dancing across the slate green waters of Howe Sound just off Porteau Cove. On this weekday afternoon in May the traffic comes in bunches, almost as if drivers are afraid to run the gauntlet of systems stabilizing the mountains that have been notched to accommodate the highway. White pipes stick out of the bluffs draining surface water and wire mesh is draped over rock faces.

At Furry Creek the wind has stiffened and the noise of the traffic dominates the senses as I step out of my car to ask for directions to Stonegate, a neighbourhood on the east side of Furry Creek.

Furry Creek, a residential and recreation development north of Lions Bay, is only a fraction of the size it will eventually become.

"We have 75 homes on the east side of the highway and 56 townhomes on the west side," says John Turner, a Squamish-Lillooet Regional District director. "The total build-out is going to be 900 plus homes."

The original developers of Furry Creek ran into financial troubles, but earlier this year a numbered company bought the land and intends to proceed with development plans that were approved by the SLRD years ago. They may include a marina a hotel and possibly even an elementary school.

Right now there are about 200 residents in Furry Creek.

"We see that going to 500 pretty quickly in the next few years," Turner continues. "We could be looking at 2,000 in the next 10 years or so."

Carpenters banging nails on two new houses drown out the sounds of running water and birds chirping in the forest that rises almost vertically from the top of Stonegate. With shingle siding and wood-framed windows the houses in Stonegate could fit into any neighbourhood in Whistler. Empty nesters and professional couples were the first new residents in Furry Creek, but the demographics are changing. People have discovered that the commuting distance to Vancouver is really not that great compared to commuting from the Fraser Valley, and more families could move into the neighbourhood.

The development will mean more traffic on the Sea to Sky Highway but Turner says highway improvements will be incorporated with Furry Creek’s growth. The highway will be widened to three lanes south of the development and the bridge across Furry Creek itself will eventually become four lanes.

Up at the Furry Creek Golf and Country Club golf carts are lined up ready for a tournament. Jim Kay, general manager of the club, participated in a highway improvement committee on behalf of Furry Creek. The main issue is noise abatement; that traffic will increase seems to be understood.

"Tree buffers are an option to cut down on the noise from the highway," Kay suggests.

"Locals feel that Furry Creek will take off," Kay adds. "There’s the potential for 700 homes and that’s 1,500 people in our area."

Up the highway from Furry Creek black and white photographs on the walls of Britannia Beach’s Ninety Niner Café hang in stark contrast to the wedding pictures and colourful paintings that adorn the walls of the golf club. In one photograph a woman sits in a chair in front of a wooden shack. Behind her on a slightly raised porch a little girl in a shabby dress stares balefully at the camera. Ten minutes ago, I was being soothed by a gust of wind that buffeted the leaves of a clematis bush against a corner of the Sea to Sky Grill overlooking the 18 th hole of the golf course. Now, the photograph shows tin stovepipe jutting up from the roof of the shack – a striking reminder of the people who pioneered Howe Sound.

"Hard times," Heather Ward, owner of the café, says studying the photograph.

Flu epidemics, flooding and landslides have plagued Britannia but the highway has always been a lifeline. Ward, though, is uncertain about the benefits of the Olympics and fearful of the uncertainty during the highway upgrades.

"We’ve heard we may be taken out," Ward remarks, shaking her head vigorously.

"We don’t know what’s going to happen."

Britannia will be hit hard by any closures during the five years of highway upgrades.

"Everyone up here might as well close their doors and go home," Ward says. "It just kills this business."

One hundred metres up the highway a feature movie is being filmed on the Britannia Mine site. Dozens and dozens of film and television projects have been shot here. The film industry is one source of revenue for Britannia, tourism is another. And the highway is key for tourism.

"From May through the end of December, we probably have 20,000 visitor stops," says Kirstin Clausen, curator of the B.C. Museum of Mining in Britannia.

"Everybody’s waiting for July 2 (when the International Olympic Committee decides who will host the 2010 Games)," Clausen says. "It’s the date on which you can start in earnest on some projects knowing there’s that extra little push and that extra little interest that might come to the corridor."

It’s not that the community of Britannia Beach won’t grow without the 2010 Winter Olympics, it is just that the time-line will be longer.

"It’s been noted that upgrades to the Sea to Sky Highway will happen regardless of the Olympics," Clausen says. "Instead of it being done in seven years it may stretch to 12 or 15 years."

Some residents of Britannia see the Olympics as a two edged sword.

"Most people feel the Olympics may not be a good thing because of the closures and the buses which are going to go right by," says Lynn Boyd, who has lived in Britannia for nine years. "But the upgrades will be good in the long run."

On the north side of Britannia a tiny collection of kiosks creates a charming carnival atmosphere to Britannia. Sherry Lundholm, a resident of Britannia and owner of Sherry’s Cappuccino, has her finger on the pulse of tourism in the corridor.

"I can tell when something is different in Vancouver," Lundholm says.

A few years ago there was a change in the number of people stopping at the kiosks on their way north. A marketing person from the Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver came by.

"We’re not getting the conference people," Lundholm said to the visitor.

Lundholm was told that in 1998, because most of the marketing people were concentrating on 2000 – the millennium year – 1999 was basically forgotten. What that told Lundholm was that the kiosks in Britannia were known to people attending other events in the corridor.

But highway closures during upgrades and the Olympics are a concern.

"I am worried," Lundholm says.

North of Murrin Lake on the approach to Squamish, Shannon Falls offers the kind of natural beauty tourism officials like to show off. Water tumbling from a rock gorge falls gracefully, splashing and cascading like a bridal veil disappearing behind a forest of evergreen trees.

"We’re happy with our location," says Marvin Knutson, owner of the Roadhouse Diner, just across the highway from the falls. But Knutson is quick to add that the highway needs improving. Six years ago, he was in an accident near Furry Creek.

"I hit a slushy spot and lost control on a rainy, cold day," he says.

Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt, but Knudson has heard his share of ambulances on the highway. As to comments about improvements making the drive to Whistler quicker, Knudson would rather the road be made safer.

"Prioritize the danger spots," he says.

Like many residents of the Sea to Sky corridor between Horseshoe Bay and Whistler, Knudson seems ambivalent about the Olympics.

"It’s good because it does prompt the highway to be looked at," he says.

But Knudson suggested he may take in some of the Olympic events himself, since there will be no business for him.

"For that period, we will probably end up closing," he says, "because the highway is our business."

At one time some Squamish residents had similar views of the Olympics, as something that would take place north and south of them and the town in the middle would just wave as people and business passed by.

"We are a parking lot to the Olympics," one person complained.

But the Squamish Chamber of Commerce is readying for the Olympics and prepared to take advantage of opportunities the Games may present. An Olympic bid task force was initiated two years ago to focus on the 2010 Games. The Olympic committee came up with the motto: "The Heart of 2010".

"We had three basic goals," Karen Hodson, manager of the Squamish Chamber of Commerce says. "One goal was to support the bid corporation to bring the Games home, the second goal was to represent businesses in the community and the third goal was to establish and secure a long term legacy."

A ferry service has been proposed as one possible legacy from the Olympics. This would be a passenger-only ferry service that would link Vancouver International Airport to Canada Place in downtown Vancouver and Squamish.

"It would be a passenger service from Squamish to Bridgeport (near the airport) and/or Squamish to Canada Place," Hodson explains.

There could be a shuttle bus from the airport to Bridgeport, a ferry to Squamish and a bus up to Whistler.

"We’re proposing that the best opportunity for the community would be at the Nexen site south of the Squamish Yacht Club," Hodson continues. "That would allow people to come into the downtown."

Historically this land south of the yacht club was where passenger and supply ships came into Squamish. A ferry service could open up a host of possibilities for Squamish, including shops and retail outlets or pocket cruises.

"Small pocket cruises could depart from Vancouver to Squamish, Campbell River or Prince Rupert," Hodson suggests.

Hodson uses the analogy of a 1,000-piece puzzle when talking about the future of Squamish.

"We’ve got the frame in now," she says, "and you have a sense from a few pieces where the picture is going."

One of the key pieces is the new Sea to Sky University at Squamish, which may open as soon as 2005. Another is the Garibaldi Springs Golf Course currently under construction. A third could be the development of the Garibaldi at Squamish ski area. At least two are going to go ahead, regardless of the Olympic decision, and that’s going to mean more people in Squamish and on the road to Squamish.

The university, for example, will initially house 200 students, eventually growing to 1,200 students. But there is also housing development with the university – 960 units and 30,000 square feet of commercial space.

The Garibaldi Springs Golf Course is being built on 160 acres in Garibaldi Highlands and is scheduled to open to a limited number of golfers next spring. A hotel clubhouse facility will be built next summer and 106 townhouse units will line some of the fairways. Construction of the first 46 units will start this month.

"Just to give you an idea, we cannot advertise prices for our first 46 units because we haven’t got our disclosure statement yet," said Sid Brickman, president of Garibaldi Springs. "But people are calling off the signs on the highway. For the first 46 units, we’ve got 42 reservations to preserve a unit."

The project that has the farthest to go before it becomes a reality is the Garibaldi at Squamish Four Seasons Resort at Brohm Ridge. The backers of the project, Aquilini Investment Group, just filed its environmental report and master plan with Lands and Water B.C. on April 28.

"It’s going to take about six months to have the various government agencies review it," Mike Esler, project manager for the resort, says. "It won’t be out to the public until they’re happy with it."

It may be premature to talk about the socio-economic benefits to Squamish but Esler is optimistic.

"It’ll have a very positive impact on Squamish," he says.

Jim Kay, GM of the Furry Creek Golf and Country Club, believes the big changes coming to Squamish can do nothing but add to the area.

"There will be more access and incentive to relocate to Squamish," he says.

In the next few years, however, residents and businesses in the corridor will have to deal with the challenges presented by highway construction.



Highway numbers

Traffic studies put the number of commuters from Squamish to the Lower Mainland at about 1,500 per day. Anther 1,200 people commute daily from Squamish to Whistler.

Approximately 700 people commute between Pemberton and Whistler on a daily basis.

According to a study on traffic between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish, the number of vehicles on that stretch of highway is increasing by 2 to 3 per cent annually. Fourteen thousand vehicles travel each way every day – 28,000 vehicles in both directions per day. By 2010, following the 2 to 3 per cent growth rate, there could be 32,000 vehicles travelling that section of Highway 99 every day.




pics 1-6 The possibility of the 2010 winter Olympics has left some residents in the Sea to Sky corridor feeling uncertain about their future. "We’ve heard we may be taken out," says Heather Ward, owner of the Ninety Niner Café in Britannia.

pics 7,8 Sherry Lundholm, owner of Sherry’s Cappuccino in Britannia Beach, has her finger on the pulse of tourism in the corridor.

pics 9,10 "Everybody is waiting for July 2," says Kirstin Clausen, curator of the Museum of Mining in Britannia.

pics 11,12 "The buses are going to go right by," says Lynn Boyd, a nine-year resident of Britannia. "But the upgrades will be good in the long run."

pics 13,14 Jim Kay, general manager of the Furry Creek Golf and Country Club, is excited about the Sea to Sky University and a new golf course. "There’s more to look forward to than a better highway," Kay says.