CN Rail deal signals start of downtown revitalization for town
For a handshake and a loonie, Squamish Mayor Ian Sutherland sealed a deal that gave Squamish 71 acres of land along Howe Sound and an opportunity, according to Sutherland, "to develop the best piece of real estate left in the Province of B.C."
The arrangement, announced Nov. 25 in Victoria by Premier Gordon Campbell, in conjunction with the sale of BC Rail to CN Rail, and by Sutherland at municipal hall in Squamish later that day, is viewed by many as the most significant development the community has seen in decades.
"It started in February when Nexen told me they were interested in returning their (leased) land back to BC Rail," said Sutherland. "So I asked them to give it to the District of Squamish instead."
As a result of that meeting, says Sutherland, Tom Galimberti and Dave Boulter, the consultants working on the remediation of the land for Nexen, one of Canadas largest oil and gas companies, brought the concept back to Nexen Vice President Randy Gossin at head office in Calgary.
"Since then theyve been 100 per cent supportive of what we are trying to do," Sutherland continues. "Nexen has spent $45 million cleaning up the site and have another 66 years left on their lease with BC Rail, but they want to leave a legacy here in Squamish so that we can pursue our goals. This is an opportunity for the entire community to have public waterfront that will contribute to a significant increase in tourist traffic, help to diversify our economy and strengthen the downtown core. Our vision of developing a ferry terminal and all the possibilities inherent in the 2010 Olympics are now even more tangible."
But not everyone was pleased with the announcement. About a dozen BC Rail employees past and present attended the gathering at municipal hall and accused Sutherland of "selling out to the provincial government on the backs of the working man in Squamish."
They angrily derided Sutherland for participating in the Mayors Council on BC Rail and the subsequent Monitoring Committee (which will ensure the condition of the sale of BC Rail to CN) because it, in their opinion, legitimized the provinces sale of BC Rail.
"The Liberal government was going to sell BC Rail regardless of what we did," said Sutherland in response. "I saw (participation on the Mayors Council on BC Rail) as a chance to make our opinions heard in Victoria and to help mitigate potential job losses and increase the opportunity for job creation. It was a chance to tell them how important Squamish Terminals is to our economy and to continue to have constructive dialogue so that we can work with CN to reduce job losses. The alternative is being on the outside yelling and screaming."
CN has outlined 24 involuntary and 48 voluntary (early retirement or buyout packages) job losses in Squamish over the next three years as a result of its restructuring of BC Rail. But employees arent buying it. They say they believe that all 187 jobs still left in the Squamish area are doomed.
The future cannot be predicted but for this community of 16,000 half way between Whistler and Vancouver, there are a few certainties. With the purchase of the rail division of BC Rail, CN will begin paying $650,000 of municipal taxes instead of the current amount of $321,000 paid by BC Rail. Other municipalities and regional districts throughout the province will also benefit in this way.
And it is also estimated that the 71-acre parcel in Squamish, with a conservative market value of $35 million, will generate several million dollars in taxes when developed, compared to the $8,000 per annum it currently generates.
"When you take into consideration that the land itself is possibly worth $50-$70 million and couple that with the hundreds of millions of dollars of potential infrastructure and development you are looking at a significant opportunity for Squamish," said councillor Dave Fenn who is also vice-chair of the Districts Downtown Waterfront Development Committee.
"As far as the planning and development of this site, we will be taking a very public-oriented approach, with the inclusion of the Fraser Basin Council, the UBC School of Planning and a public charette process. What were saying here is not if you built it they will come but, come and well build it together."
What the waterfront development will look like has yet to be determined but Sutherland indicated that a Waterfront Development Corporation, at arms length to municipal government, will be established in the new year once the land title is turned over and the new Community Charter takes effect. The WDC will be charged with charting the course for the development of all Squamishs waterfront, an area that grew by 71 acres in the past week but could potentially increase again.
"Theres another 81 acres just north of the Nexen lands that we hope Victoria sees the benefit in giving us as well," says Sutherland. "We just need to convince them. But all in all, this land acquisition represents a momentous event in this community."