Sea to Sky spillover 

How the Sea to Sky's other communities are dealing with the after-effects of Whistler and Vancouver's rapid growth

click to flip through (3) ILLUSTRATION BY JON PARRIS - Sea to sky spillover - How the Sea to Sky's other communities are dealing with the after-effects of Whistler and Vancouver's rapid growth
  • Illustration by Jon Parris
  • Sea to sky spillover - How the Sea to Sky's other communities are dealing with the after-effects of Whistler and Vancouver's rapid growth
   

Considered by many to be the most beautiful highway in the world, Highway 99 connects the main communities of Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton.

Tourists visiting from Vancouver might see Whistler as the crowning jewel of the corridor's tourism. But neighbouring communities are deeply proud of their own assets, and quick to insist on their uniqueness and independence from the world-renowned ski resort.

"We draw a lot of visitors into our area," says Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman. "Some that have come to Whistler, but many that visit Pemberton come for Pemberton, and drive right through Whistler. It is a very different experience."

The community's rolling farmland, with many properties still owned by families who arrived in the 1900s, is hard to compare to the hustle and bustle of Whistler and its revolving door of seasonal workers.

While Whistler's most iconic hotel resembles a castle, the Pemberton Hotel has the feel of an old Western saloon.

Despite their vast differences, the two communities have been closely linked since the ski resort opened for business in 1966 and brought a completely different industry to the area.

"We are tied to Whistler in so many ways, and the growth in the whole corridor, from Squamish all the way up, impacts us," Richman says.

Those impacts have brought both positives and challenges with them, according to Richman.

Small businesses in Pemberton's entrepreneurial community have grown rapidly, and new developments mean a larger tax base to pay for essnetial community services like transit.

At the same time, affordability in the rural community has suffered. For a town boasting a population of 2,436 and a breathtaking three-hour drive to the nearest major airport, it's not unusual for a one-bedroom apartment to rent for upwards of $1,500 a month.

For locals who increasingly commute and work throughout the entire corridor, the communities are inextricably tied together by the highway and the recent growth of Whistler and the Lower Mainland.

"How do we manage this growth and this development so we don't lose the character that Pemberton has?" asks Richman. "The character of the community drew so many of us here and that is very, very dear to us. We want to protect that."

Despite their inherent differences, each community in the corridor is looking for answers to the very same question.

THE HOUSING dilemma

Because of their unique geography and makeup, each of the Sea to Sky's housing markets has different pressure points.

The latest numbers from BC Assessment, released in January, show a 21-per-cent increase in the value of residential homes in Whistler over the past year, with strata residentials seeing the fastest growth.

Residential homes in Pemberton saw an assessment increase of 20 per cent, while overall home values in Squamish increased by an average of 10 per cent.

In Whistler, demand has been up since financial markets stabilized in 2012 in the wake of the global economig downturn, according to Pat Kelly, president of the Whistler Real Estate Group.

"Developers have not been able to keep up with that demand, in terms of providing new product," he says. "When there were lots of opportunities here and prices were low, we didn't see as many people considering Squamish or Pemberton as a place to live."

The Whistler Housing Authority (WHA), which has a mandate to help house at least three-quarters of the resort's workforce locally, is part of the ongoing effort to combat the problem.

Under the WHA, two-bedroom rentals in Whistler are priced between $1,380 and $1,495. The rental waitlist is currently one to two years for a unit, according to the organization's website.

"Certainly (Whistler's) recent economic success has created local pressures," says Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

In December, the municipality committed to increasing the rental stock by 1,000 beds restricted to local workers over the next five years.

In the meantime, many people working and playing in the resort have either chosen or been forced to look north and south for an affordable home.

Richman appropriately refers to Pemberton's growth as "big peaks and valleys."

"In the last two or three years, we've headed towards a peak again —  we've had a huge amount of interest in Pemberton," he says.

Just a 30-minute drive from Whistler, Pemberton offers more sunshine and warmer summers than the resort with a better value for many properties.

Sotheby's International sales rep Nick Harriss compares the price of a 2,100-square-foot townhouse, which can vary between $450,000 to $650,000 in Pemberton. In Whistler, he said that same space can cost upwards of $1.5 million.

Further south down the highway, while some seasonal Whistler workers land in Squamish due to the tightening rental market, the far bigger influence seems to be Vancouver.

A little over an hour (in ideal conditions) to Downtown Vancouver, the extra time on the highway is an attractive trade-off for families that can afford a home amidst the community's stunning natural beauty.

"The growth that affects Squamish is not Whistler's growth; our growth is a direct result of Vancouver becoming less affordable," says Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman.

"It's an influx of people selling their $2-million home (in the city) and buying a $1-million home here and not sneezing at it."

She rightly points out that Squamish's prime location — 45 minutes to Whistler and 45 minutes to West Vancouver — is another attractive prospect.

"For people moving down to Squamish, affordability might be a part of that, but I think it's lifestyle. It's a different type of community to raise your kids in, and you have more job opportunities here. If you're living in Squamish you can work in the city and have a spouse that works here or in Whistler," Heintzman says.

COMMUTING THE CORRIDOR

Steve Andrews lived in Whistler for 12 years, that is, until he ran into a recurring problem: landing a place to live that wasn't a sublet or involved sharing a room.

"I just didn't want to play that game," he says.

In Squamish, he found a large room in a house with ample space and a garage. Since he can work remotely, the move made sense — he likes being closer to the city.

But even working from home, Andrews still spends plenty of time on the highway, commuting to visit friends and ride powder.

"I'm still very involved in the Whistler community, but driving in the winter, there are sometimes I decide not to come up. I've had friends die on that highway or seriously injure themselves. It's a factor I didn't think about when I first moved to Squamish," he says.

Andrews, who ran for a spot on Whistler's council in 2016, wants to see better transit linking the communities. For people like him who work in one town and live or play in another, the boundaries between them can be porous.

"The Sea to Sky corridor is kind of one unit, we're not really individual communities anymore," he opines.

"But the conditions on the highway make me double-think that drive. I have friends, a girlfriend, family up in Whistler. In the winter, especially, I'm driving that highway so much. A big part of my community network is there, so I find myself there more often than not."

According to the latest figures from Statistics Canada, around 880 people commute from Squamish to Whistler daily. The number of people who commute to Vancouver and its outlying suburbs is almost double that.

"Years ago, more people commuted to Whistler. I think the commuters now, the majority of them commute to the city," says Heintzman.

While she believes its proximity to the city gives Squamish an advantage in allowing for flexibility and a diversity of jobs, the commute can also take a toll.

"I've had people that work at the district here, that used to commute to the city, and they said when they first moved here they found it hard to connect with their community, to meet neighbours, and to find a cohort and a group of people," Heintzman relays.

"When they start working in the town that they're living in, they get that community connectedness, a feeling of community. And they have an extra two hours a day to be with their family or to spend at the soccer field or to volunteer to coach hockey, or whatever it is."

Heintzman's goal is to grow and diversify Squamish's economy, so that residents have the flexibility to choose whether to commute or not.

"My goal is to make it so no one has to commute up to Whistler if they don't want to. Why wouldn't I want that?" she asks. "We have lots of options in terms of economic growth and that is our focus. And make it so fewer people have to commute.

"I don't see Whistler's growth as a threat to us, I think Whistler's growth is a threat to Whistler," she adds.

The rise of telecommuting has also influenced growth in the corridor, making the two communities north of Squamish viable places to call home even for city workers.

Harriss points out he has multiple clients who run their own businesses and work remotely. The easy access to YVR makes Whistler an appealing place to live.

"The other thing is that technology has really changed our market; I almost look at Whistler as a bedroom community to Vancouver now," he says. "I don't view us as a ski town, per se, anymore. We're an all-year-round community and resort. As (Whistler Blackcomb owners) Vail Resorts invests more money into Whistler, I only see that increasing."

Despite accomodation being in short supply, officials estimate 79 per cent of Whistler's workers live in the community, a number that needs to be kept high to keep the resort "authentic," according to Wilhelm-Morden.

"It is important to have as many people as possible who work here, live here. A true community delivers a feel of authenticity, and from a community member's perspective, most people don't want to be sitting on the road for hours a day driving back and forth to work," she says.

In 2015, Whistler's council took a fact-finding trip to Colorado, visiting ski resorts to compare and contrast best practices.

"We were in Aspen for three days before I saw a child," she notes. "Because nobody lives there."

When workers live in Whistler, adds Wilhelm-Morden, it's the insider knowledge they possess that actually helps improve the visitor experience as well.

"It's those interactions, or those lack of interactions, that tell you a lot about the town. Hidden treasures, what you can do for free, there's all kinds of information that locals are very happy to share with tourists, if they truly are locals."

PUBLIC TRANSIT: CONNECTING THE DOTS

On a foggy January morning in Pemberton, a few early risers have time for a coffee at the friendly Blackbird Bakery before hopping on the commuter bus to Whistler. An equal number of people manage to arrive just before the Whistler Transit bus pulls out for the 30-kilometre trek south.

It's a bus commuters can't always afford to miss. There are only two pickup times in the morning, at 7 and 8:20 a.m., and two drop-off times in the afternoon, at 5:22 and 6:42 p.m.

That means, at least for half the year, riders are catching both their buses in the dark.

Mayor Richman acknowledges the schedule is limiting.

"For evening service, we don't have many (buses), so if you work in the hospitality industry, you can't get home late in the evening, or if you go out for dinner, how will you get home? We're trying to find some short-term solutions for that," he says.

In October 2017, BC Transit released a report that was developed through extensive public feedback that proposed additional buses connecting communities from as far north as Mount Currie down to Vancouver. The proposal comes with a potential $3.3-million price tag, and if a fund-sharing model can be worked out quickly, transit officials say the new routes could be operational by 2019.

While Whistler's consistent visitor numbers mean it is served by Greyhound and other private shuttle companies, today there are fewer reliable transportation options connecting the resort to Pemberton.

After trimming its schedule last fall, Greyhound operates a route between Whistler and Pemberton that now runs just three times a day.

In September, Greyhound Canada applied to the government for permission to cut several of its B.C. routes, including one that links Vancouver to Pemberton. While affordable regional transit has always been an issue for Squamish and Pemberton, fewer transportation options and a labour shortage in Whistler have added a sense of urgency.

"Regional transit is vital in so many ways," says Richman. "It's an expensive service, so there's a lot of conversations about how to make this work."

The goal is to get more cars off the highway, to ease the impacts on both the environment and traffic congestion. But there's also a social aspect, making sure families can afford to work without the added costs of a car.

"Many people don't have the ability to have two cars, or a car, to get to Whistler to get jobs or the services they might need to get to," Richman notes.

That's the case for Catie O'Brien and her young family. While she was born and raised in Whistler, O'Brien now lives in Pemberton with her husband and four-year-old son, squeezed out of her hometown by a limiting rental market.

The couple started looking for a rental in Whistler for their growing family, but quickly had to expand their search.

"We couldn't really find anything," she says. "We looked at a place in Squamish, a place in Pemberton, and a place in Whistler. In Whistler, it was the most expensive and the smallest."

Wanting room to grow while still saving money, the family decided on a home close to Downtown Pemberton, within walking distance of shops and the library. While they like the community, limited transit options and sharing one vehicle mean the move came with certain sacrifices.

The couple successfully juggled the car and childcare over the summer while both worked in Whistler. Increasingly, O'Brien found herself needing to catch oddly-timed buses that would mean hours of waiting in the village until her shift started.  

"People don't do the general 9-to-5 here. I think there should just be more options, because it's a pretty limiting bus schedule," she says.

"Some of those days, because I'd have to bus in earlier than my shift started, basically my whole wage would go to the sitter.

"Two cars, with insurance and gas, it really adds up. But looking at it now, based on how much extra we're paying on gas, we could have that money, and our budget could have been bigger in Whistler because of what we're spending on gas anyways."

O'Brien says she also worried about conditions on the highway when her and her husband were both working — if it closed, even for a few hours, who would pick up their son from daycare?

In the end, O'Brien's husband took on a new job with longer hours, and it made more sense for her to stay home full-time to care for their son.

The decision to stay was good timing, because the bus O'Brien usually took to the village — a 10:35 a.m. trip operated by Greyhound — was eliminated from the schedule soon after.

She likes living in Pemberton, but sometimes misses the hustle and bustle of the resort and her circle of close friends.

THERE WILL ALWAYS BE CHANGE

As a smaller sized town located closer to Whistler, Kelly says Pemberton has had a more noticeable influx of new residents than Squamish. The community has experienced a real-estate boom and small businesses and entrepreneurs have benefitted from the addition of new residents.

At the same time, the municipality is thinking hard about ways to balance that growth — making sure services like fire and ambulance can keep up, and preserving the community's farming roots.

"We're headed towards a bit of a conflict, where we need to make some engaged decisions about where we want to eat in the future," says Pemberton Councillor Jennie Helmer.

Helmer, who is both a paramedic and a third-generation potato farmer, gave two answers when asked what she loves most about the Spud Valley: family, and the soil.

While the rush of newcomers is unlikely to influence her family's longstanding presence in the area, she does worry about what it means for Pemberton's valuable farmland.

"The Fraser Valley is the best example," she explains. "They have lost thousands and thousands of acres of farmland to housing and industry. It's not to say one is better or worse, but it is about, what do we need as a population? I'd argue we need food and clean water, and also we need housing."

Helmer doesn't worry too much about more transient seasonal workers coming from Whistler, but she does wonder about if the new residents shifting Pemberton's demographics will embrace the agricultural lifestyle — which can be loud, smelly and operates on early hours.

The upside for optimistic newcomers, of course, is the availability of organic food.

"It's so funny when we talk about growth, because of course I am a product of that," she admits. "My great, great aunt came here in 1890. She bought farmland here thinking that the railway would be coming through."

It's hard to guess what the population was back then — but Helmer agrees that even when Pemberton had just a handful of residents, there was probably at least one person upset about the changes the railway would inevitably bring with it.

The railway eventually opened in 1914, and there's no doubt it shifted the distinct characters of both Pemberton and Squamish long before Whistler began to welcome visitors to the ski slopes.

Since that first generation, the Helmer family has grown with the town. Helmer and her sisters have contributed with their own children.

"No matter what position we put ourselves in, there's always been change and growth," she says. "It's just up to us to make it good."

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