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Feature - Corridor dynamics

There’s much more than the Olympics and development projects on the horizon, there’s going to be a population shift

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Squamish Mayor Ian Sutherland calls it a "transition" that will involve many "fantastic projects".

The manager of the Squamish Chamber of Commerce, Karen Hudson, says the elected officials in Squamish have to have a 2020 vision with a 2010 focus.

President of the Sea to Sky University Dr. David Strangway says the planned development in Squamish could only be "good for the university and great for the town".

One of the partners involved in Squamish’s new factory outlet mall simply describes the development that is going to occur in and around his town over the next few years as "explosive".

And they’re not talking about the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Currently there are 11 major projects proposed for the Squamish area, including: the Sea to Sky University, a high-end factory outlet mall, the ongoing development at Britannia Beach, the ongoing development at Furry Creek, a proposed four season resort and ski area at Brohm Ridge, the Squamish waterfront development, a new Wal-Mart store, the Garibaldi Springs golf course, the expansion of Capilano College and a new Canadian Tire mall.

And while many of these projects will take years to complete, the result is that within two years Squamish will be a self-contained town that attracts people from Vancouver to do the same things people in Squamish used to travel to Vancouver to do, like high-end shopping.

Any one of these developments would have a lasting financial and, in many cases, cultural impact on a town with a population of about 17,000, but there’s not one development – there’s 11.

Factor in the $600 million upgrade to Highway 99, which will make Squamish more accessible from Vancouver, and the message is clear: the dynamics of Squamish, and indeed of the whole Sea to Sky corridor, are changing. Who lives in the corridor, how many people live in the corridor, where they work, where they shop, where they recreate, who visits the corridor, what visitors do and where they stay are all evolving. It’s a radical adjustment, particularly for Squamish, which for years was defined solely by the forestry industry.

There are literally hundreds of smaller pieces to the Squamish puzzle as well, but the one that is likely to have the single biggest impact is the Sea to Sky University.

The Sea to Sky University is vital because of the hundreds of students it will attract and the real estate development that will finance the university. But these are minor developments in comparison to the cultural change the school could facilitate.

When the university opens its doors to its first 600 students in 2006 it will be injecting a whole new generation of people into Squamish. And it’s expected many of those students will stay in or return to the corridor after they finish their degrees.

The importance of the university is not lost on the people who live in Squamish either, particularly the mayor. Sutherland is confident the university will have a more telling impact than the Olympics.

"The town’s going through a transition but I think the university will have a bigger long-term impact than the Olympics because having a university in a town is a life-changing event," Sutherland said.

"The Olympics is a great event, which will do a lot for the community, but over the long term it’s the university that has people excited and will fundamentally change the direction the town’s going.

"It’s going to change the fabric of the whole community and bring things to a community of 15,000 to 20,000 that you don’t normally get in a town of 15,000 to 20,000.

"It brings in events, it brings in festivals, it brings in people, it brings in cache, it brings in everything and adds a lot to what you can do as a town.

"When you add all the natural setting we have and the fact that we’re 45 minutes from the greatest ski hill and 45 minutes from the greatest city it makes this a pretty neat place to be."

Strangway said the university has already enjoyed wonderful support from the Squamish community.

"We want this to be a University of Squamish not just a university in Squamish," Strangway said.

"We’re thinking we want this to be a university-centric town, much like how some towns are built around a golf course.

"It’s definitely a town that’s changing and evolving."

Strangway said he saw Squamish in the same light as Mount Allison in Sackville, New Brunswick.

"The Mount Allison people take great pride in their university and it’s become a feature of their town.

"These things can be very significant, especially in small towns."

The first construction started with the bridge over Mashiter Creek. The seven-month project was scheduled to commence on March 29.

Strangway anticipates the first phase of construction on the university itself will begin around June, with the academic, sports and recreation facilities and student residences due for completion in 2006.

"You’re looking at two phases: in the first phase there will be 600 students living and studying on campus and in the second phase we want to bring in a further 600 students."

Strangway said the university would have a strong focus on undergraduate studies and globalization.

"Many of students will be new to Canada and the idea is that the young people will be studying together and getting exposure to the much bigger world," Strangway said.

The other side effect to importing a lot of young people into a town is the entertainment.

Young people need outlets such as movie theatres and arcades and the developers driving the construction of the Canadian Tire mall have promised to provide many of those facilities.

Sutherland said, at this stage, the plans include five movie theatres, a paint store, a ski shop and other retail outlets.

"What’s happening is that Squamish, in pretty quick time, is going to become a self contained community," said Sutherland.

The development of the Squamish waterfront will also add a plethora of entertainment values to the downtown area. The District of Squamish acquired 71 acres of waterfront land, formerly occupied by Nexen, for $1 last December. Since then the community has been holding workshops to define a redevelopment concept.

Sutherland defined the Squamish waterfront as one of the last remaining jewels of real estate in B.C.

"The waterfront area is surrounded by water on three sides and has a vista of the mountains on four sides.

"Already we have huge interest from lots and lots of major players who can see the potential for that site and, yes, we have to overcome some obstacles, but the upside of it is so amazing.

"When you think about a waterfront walkway and a ferry terminal, a hotel a conference centre, maybe an arts centre, some high technology employment and some condos and town homes….

"That waterfront is literally one of the last remaining jewels of real estate in the province of British Columbia and it’s going to become the focal point for the regeneration of downtown Squamish.

"It’s going to be looked at by people many years into the future as just a fantastic project and it’s going to attract the really high end serious planners, investors, developers – the whole range of people are going to want to be involved with this project – because of the potential."

Sutherland said many of the best developers and builders will be attracted by the prestige of the Olympics.

"It’s a world class project, especially when you consider that in six years the whole world will be able to look at it.

"If you’re a top-end developer, a top-end investor or top-end architect you want to be able to show the world."

One aspect of the corridor that much of the world doesn’t know about yet is the proximity of the ocean to the mountains. The top of Blackcomb is 7,500 feet above sea level; the base of the mountain is no more than 45 minutes by car from downtown Squamish and the ocean.

The president of the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic organizing committee, Valentino Castellani, recognized this feature immediately when he came to Whistler a month ago as part of an Italian delegation. Castellani said the most spectacular thing about his visit was the concept of skiing "in front of the sea."

That relationship of sea and mountains will be exploited by the proposed Four Seasons Resort and ski area at Brohm Ridge.

If it is approved the resort – at buildout – is expected to cover 4,500 acres and operate 22 lifts. But there are still a number of parties who oppose the development. The Squamish Nation has filed a petition against the proposed resort, which is currently being heard in the B.C. Supreme Court.

The resort also has yet to win approval from Lands and Water B.C.

Despite these hurdles, Sutherland said he expects the resort to get some initial approvals by summer.

"They (the developers) have ambitious plans and I’m sure they’re going to try and get at least some of it open before the Olympics," he said.

The rush to finalize plans and open businesses before the Olympics will be immense. It is a phenomenon that must be co-ordinated and managed correctly.

Part of this management will be to look at projects and events in the corridor that drive business during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall.

Sean Languedoc, who is a spokesman for the factory outlet mall, said many of the proposed developments in Squamish are being designed to attract business during the shoulder seasons.

"We believe the highest population of visitors to our town will come from the Lower Mainland because there’s 2.4 million people in the Lower Mainland and no factory outlet mall, unless they want to cross the border," Languedoc said.

"It works for us because the shoulder seasons are when people want to buy everything. Pre-Christmas, pre-summer, pre-winter, pre-school are all shoulder season times but these times are also when people are looking to buy things and that’s when we think we can draw a significant amount of traffic up the highway (from Vancouver).

"Our studies show that in most cars that come up here there is at least three-plus people per vehicle and at least one of those people is not coming here to shop.

"The residual effect will be enormous… because any time there’s a lot of traffic in a vacation area they’re forced to utilize other services."

Languedoc said if development in Squamish is managed well then the possibilities for expansion will be enormous.

"I moved to Squamish seven years ago and if a lot of these developments are done right I can see this place being another Boulder, Colorado.

"There’s a lot more land here than in places like Whistler – it’s definitely explosive."

If explosive is an appropriate term for Squamish then it would be correct to label the proposed development at Britannia Beach as the fuse.

The area is not officially inside the boundaries of Squamish (it’s in the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District) but being situated just south of Squamish makes Britannia the area’s unofficial "front door".

Britannia Beach is a complex, multi-faceted issue. The former mine was once the largest copper producer in the British Empire. Since the mine closed in the mid-1970s it has become a major source of acid rock water pollution, discharging an average of 600 kg of heavy metals a day into Howe Sound.

The lands surrounding the mine are home to several hundred residents, but all of the residents lease their homes from the land owner, MacDonald Development.

Natural Resources Canada, the provincial Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management, the University of British Columbia and MacDonald Development are all involved in Britannia.

UBC’s involvement with Britannia Beach began in 2001 when researchers put a plug in the mine to slow acid rock drainage. The university has since proposed a $10.6 million research centre near the mine, which would study the effects of mining.

This week the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management and Partnerships B.C. announced a short list of three proponents have to design, build, finance and operate a new acid water treatment plant to clean up the mine site.

Meanwhile, MacDonald Development is about to start rezoning some 400 acres in and around Britannia Beach for residential development, while Natural Resources Canada plans to build a multi-million dollar interpretive centre next to the mine.

A museum of mining attracts 40,000 visitors a year but project designers believe visitor numbers could jump to between 300,000 and 500,000 a year after redevelopment.

The site is also frequently used by film companies.

Sutherland, who is also the chair of the SLRD, was adamant Britannia Beach would not be ignored.

"The exciting part about Britannia Beach from our town’s point of view is that it’s our front door and it doesn’t matter what we do within our community, we’re going to be judged on what Britannia Beach turns out to be.

"Britannia Beach is a huge project but it’s one that’s very important to Squamish and it’s one that’s going to get done because it’s so important to the Olympics.

"The federal government’s interested (in Britannia Beach), I know Victoria’s interested and the regional district’s interested because the opportunity’s there to be part of an investment."

Sutherland conceded the Britannia Beach project was complex but he was sure the will was there to fix it.

"There’s lots of other places in the world that have been neglected for long periods of time but things can get fixed up pretty easily and pretty quickly when the will exists to do it.

"The will we have right now, the will everyone has, is that in 2010 the whole world is going to be driving by and that gives good incentive for everyone to fix it up."

Hodson, from the Squamish Chamber of Commerce, agreed the incentive to do well was undeniable but she said the most positive thing about living in Squamish was that the community genuinely wants to be involved.

"At a meeting recently one gentlemen said, ‘we’ve been talking about it (development) for 15 years but this is the first time it feels like it’s going to happen’," Hodson said.

"We have advisory meetings up here and 150 turn up to each one. There’s a lot of communities that couldn’t care less, like in Vancouver if they had a meeting for development they wouldn’t get that many people to come out.

"You can feel the energy here, everybody that I know is on a committee of some kind."

Hodson said Squamish was extremely lucky to be in the position it’s in.

"The biggest challenge is to manage it because a lot of communities would die and our community’s struggling but there’s action being taken and there’s planning being done.

"There’s a lot of communities struggling after being hit with fires and the downturn in economy, but we’re extremely lucky that we’ve got all these projects going on."

Hodson said the waterfront development, in particular, could do for Squamish what Granville Island has done for Vancouver.

"It took Prince Rupert eight years to get all the ducks in a row and start ferry services and I think that’s what’s going to happen with us.

"There’s just so much potential in what’s happening now that we really need to be building for 2010, as opposed to just building when it’s needed.

"In saying that, we also need long term plans because you wouldn’t mortgage your house for a 17-day party.

"The advice a lot of the people from Salt Lake have given us is not to be greedy with the rent as the Olympics approach because we need to make for long-term customers."

The other aspect of this situation is the pressure to get it right.

"The real difficult job is for the planning department and they’re the ones that keep all the balls in the air and keep track of everything," Sutherland said.

"One thing about the planning folks is that there’s 15 balls in the air and we don’t know which ones are going to hit, but our planning staff are good at saying, ‘OK, we’ll take it as it comes.’

"It’s important to remember that all the projects we’ve spoken about are ones that are being done, but there’s another list – this high – that we haven’t talked about that are in the planning stages.

"Having said all that, it’s a great spot to be in because we’ve got all these ideas coming at us and hopefully we can pick and choose everything to go forward with."

Determining what’s best for the Sea to Sky corridor will rely heavily on the spirit of co-operation.

For now, the municipalities in the corridor appear to be working well together and this is something that must continue, because as the dynamics shift in one community, the impact may be felt in others.

Sutherland appeared relieved when he spoke of the co-operation in the Sea to Sky corridor.

"We’ve figured it out, finally, that all three of us (the governments in Pemberton, Squamish and Whistler) working together can make this into a dynamic area.

"There are some things Whistler can do well and there’s some things it doesn’t do so well, and the same thing with Squamish and Pemberton. This is why we have the regional growth strategy, so all three of us, as well as the outlying areas, understand what we’re trying to do.

"And it’s not about competing, because we’re not competing for the same business dollar, it’s about trying to complement each other.

"There is no room for a factory outlet mall in Whistler, for example, but if you were going on vacation what better way to do it than to go skiing in the morning and then come down here, play a round of gold in the afternoon and then go for a sail in the evening. Where else can you do that in the world? But to achieve this we have to work together."

Whistler Mayor Hugh O’Reilly, who has been a long-time advocate of regional planning, said it was becoming more important every day for the municipalities in this region to work together.

"We have an agreement to complete the regional growth strategy, which will show how we are going to manage and direct the developments coming up," O’Reilly said.

"With First Nations’ participation, it’s going to be a phenomenal 20-year blueprint.

"But we have to plan it carefully, monitor it and watch it unfold.

"We saw this happen in Whistler and if we have a similar success at the regional level, the next 20 years in the Sea to Sky corridor are going to be very exciting.

"It should be something all the communities can take pride in."

O’Reilly said the essence of the regional growth strategy will be to work at defining the roles and functions of each community.

"The spirit of co-operation between corridor communities is the best it’s ever been and yes, there is always more to do, but we are learning now how to better communicate and share information," he said.

"It has been very encouraging and it is only going to get better as we focus on the opportunities in the corridor.

"We know it’s (the Olympics) coming and it requires us to do proper planning to get it right at the highest levels, especially with regards to transportation and land use.

"Those are the two arteries that drive the end product and will make our communities complete."