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The Penturbia effect - part 3

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The mountains are a pricey place to play

Eighty-five years ago, when Alex and Myrtle Philip first moved here to build Rainbow Lodge, there was a handful of people who lived in this bucolic mountain valley.

Even 10 years ago, less than 4,500 people lived here.

Five years ago, the population had increased 60 per cent to more than 7,200.

The average price of a home was $394,000 in 1996, more expensive than either Vancouver or Toronto.

Nowadays, Whistler's population hovers somewhere around 10,000 and there's a house that is listed by local realtors for $11.2 million.

So what happened to make things turn out this way?

Well, Intrawest Corp., owner of Blackcomb Mountain, reached out across Fitzsimmons Creek in December 1996 and purchased the family-owned Whistler Mountain.

Intrawest has since invested $500 million into the resort.

"Capital improvements" – such as snowmaking, grooming, high-speed lifts and on-mountain restaurants – "attract people to invest in real estate," says Paul Mathews, president of Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners Ltd.

Mathews has done work for resorts around the globe and recognizes a trend when he sees one.

"Real estate sales drive skier visits," he says. "It's completely, directly related."

Real estate prices in Whistler are now starting to reach Aspen- and Vail-like levels, where homes have sold for as high as $15 million US.

But why has Whistler's population doubled in the past decade even though skier numbers in both Canada and the U.S. have declined?

Because resorts like Whistler, Aspen and Vail are attracting people who Alison Gill, a Simon Fraser University geography professor, likes to call "amenity migrants."

According to Gill, who has studied the effects of tourism on Whistler since the early 1990s, "amenity migrants" are upper middle-class second-home buyers, who are free to move away from urban centres due to long-distance telephones, computer modems and e-mail.

"They’re affluent, they can afford to buy houses and they want urban services," she says.

Gill also notes that the trend is happening across Western North American, especially in the Colorado Rockies where communities – such as Aspen and Vail – are growing at an exponential rate.

According to Ecosign's Mathews, there are currently 42 resort villages under development across North America.

But there is a definite downside, one that Whistlerites are becoming all too familiar with: the prices of homes are becoming, as Gill puts it, obscene.

"Workers are being forced to live elsewhere," she says. "The out-migration of people is causing these places to become socially exclusive."

During the same 10-year period that Whistler's population has gone from 4,500 to 10,000, the population of nearby Pemberton – a 35 kilometre drive north of the resort – increased by at least 100 per cent, from 500 residents in 1991 to more than 1,000 today.

But unlike Whistler, the houses are more affordable.

In 1996, the price of an average home was $187,000 – or less than half as much as one in Whistler.

Workers are also moving 45-kilometres south of the resort to Squamish, where housing and the general cost of living are cheaper as well.

The same scenario – known as the "Penturbia effect," after a book by American urban development professor Jack Lessinger – is also playing itself out in the Canadian Rockies as city dwellers flock to mountain communities such as Canmore, Alta., causing real-estate prices to go through the roof.

"They’re the driving force behind the rising cost of housing," says Gill. "(It) is creating a barrier to the ordinary person."

The population of Canmore increased by nearly 50 per cent, from 5,600 in 1991 to 8,300 in 1996.

"Real estate drives the need to increase growth and vice-versa," says Brent Harley, president of Brent Harley and Associates Inc., another Whistler-based resort planning company. "That's the game."

And some would note part of the game is the skiing and snowboarding lifestyle has been co-opted by corporations and developers, re-packaged and sold back to the public as a pricey product.

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