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The rise of Squamish culture

As a younger demographic moves into town, a sea change in arts and culture is taking place

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There was a time when Squamish hummed with the sound of buzz saws. The wind would carry the sound and, depending on where you were, you could hear it like a monotonous music note droning along with the morning clouds.

It's gone now, that buzzing. The saws are fast disappearing, and in the void left by the forestry and rail industries, a new culture is emerging, driven by younger families, new entrepreneurs and a increasing number of artists from Whistler and Vancouver, seeking refuge from high property costs and looking for a life close to the mountains.

It's funky. It's creative. It's growing and will continue to do so.

Squamish is now home to 35 separate artist groups and has one of the highest artist-per-capita rates in the country. It is home to four music festivals  - unheard of for a town of 15,000 people. One of those festivals, Squamish Equinox Rock Festival, better known as SERF, has to annually turn away local talent wanting to participate. Another, the Bass Coast Project, is a three-day exploration of music, artistic experimentation and human cooperation - three things that could very well define where Squamish itself is headed.

"I just feel like all the artists are bringing a new breath of life to Squamish," says Bass Coast co-founder Andrea Graham, also known by her DJ alias, The Librarian. "You can see it evident on the street, in the shops."

And now you can see it in the town's new flagship event, LIVE at Squamish. Now in it's second year, including headliners Weezer and Metric this weekend, the festival alone will not change Squamish in any immediate way, aside from the business dollars it will generate. No, the festival is a result of changes that have happened in the Sea to Sky over the past decade. The festival is a rally cry for the town, B.C. and beyond to pay attention to it.

Last fall LIVE at Squamish executive producer Paul Runnals showed Squamish council the TV commercial for Bing, the Microsoft search engine, which had been broadcast to millions of viewers across the continent the week before during Monday Night Football. The 30-second clip shows a user deciding between LIVE at Squamish and Austin City Limits - one of the biggest music festivals in North America - over a time-lapsed video of the Squamish festival shot during its two-day run. A voice over says, "Squamish or Austin, you're gonna need a place to crash."

"That's millions and millions of dollars of unearned media profile for Squamish through that one little piece that was just a random thing that happened to come in right at the last minute," Runnals says.

All of a sudden, Squamish had been introduced to the world stage. Council was impressed, of course. The word "Squamish" had been heard for the first time by millions of people, providing exposure for the town on a level that even the 2010 Olympic Games couldn't bring.

Granted, Squamish was chosen by festival organizers for practical reasons - it's close to Vancouver, has easy access to a major highway and the Chief provides a stunning natural backdrop - but it's for these same reasons that the town has developed as it has.

You see, there's a new hum in town. It's quiet but it's getting louder. The artists are illustrating this new energy gripping the town. They capture the looks and feelings of a changing demographic; capturing their worries and concerns; articulating through their various mediums what they take pleasure in and what their hopes are rested on. Due to relatively low property costs and drastic changes in its economic base, Squamish has become a bastion for young artists and creative types.

"(Squamish) is reinventing itself with what the community identifies with," says Stan Matwychuk, artist and co-founder of Homebase Studios. "There's the 26-to-34 year olds that's wiping the slate clean, saying, 'This is what I want to do in this town and this is my lifestyle and I'm happy doing that.'"

The studio's layout is an indication of the cooperative approach that artists of this generation are taking - a big room with paint; easels and computers are all within arms reach. Five artists could be at work at any one time and their output seems to be a product of not just the individual, but of the communication that happens between them all. Ideas are tossed around the room, free to stick, bounce or fall where they may. They can bubble and grow into something bigger than intended.

It was set up to bridge as many divides as possible - between individual artists, between generations, between opposing ideas. Homebase functions as a collective, serving the entire Sea to Sky corridor with whatever artistic and creative needs are needed.

This idea is stretching well beyond the creative field.

"The re-identifying of industry and local community, there's a shift that's happening. That paradigm could be very fresh and very new. It is going to allow Squamish to create its own voice," Matwychuk says.

But there are challenges. This drive in the younger demographics is not necessarily turning into an economic boon. Squamish is essentially four disparate neighbourhoods and there's a sense of disconnection caused by a lack of physical togetherness. Weekdays along Cleveland Avenue are bustling but come Sunday, it's Deadsville. There seems to be a new big box retailer setting up shop every couple of months and, like in most communities, it's slaughtering the little guy. Independent stores along Cleveland are closing left and right. There's a fear among the locals that the corporate clutch will squeeze the soul out of the town before it has a chance to flourish.

"(Squamish) needs an identity, a cultural identity and one that hasn't been made before - one that's new, represents who are, for one," Josee St. Amour, owner of the House of RTS on Cleveland Ave, said last July. Her gallery - one of the few stores selling underground art in the Sea to Sky - closed later that month.

"People are suffering from bad economic times," said Karin Shard, editor and founder of Tongue in Cheek coffee paper.

"People aren't spending."

But, she adds, the vibe in the town has changed. There's all these really cool artsy, funky individuals breathing new life into the town, keeping it fresh and on its toes.

She's sitting next to Paul Hudson, her co-organizer in the SERF music festival, at Zephyr Café, a health-conscious eatery on Cleveland Ave. It's bustling on a Friday afternoon. Advertisements for yoga and artisan workshops are tacked in abundance on a bulletin board on the back wall.

Hudson moved to Squamish from Whistler in 2004 and he says the demographics were different then but already starting to shift. Much of the industry that defined the town, railroad and lumber, were suffering and had begun their exits. The people supported by these industries made the exit as well. By 2007 these industries had vanished, leaving a gaping hole in the community's economy.

"Squamish should have been devastated," he says. "Any town that has its whole economy and economic base disappear would have been devastated but Squamish seemed to survive as a result of the emerging outdoor culture that happened to move here."

It was all about timing.

The Olympics meant an upgraded highway. That meant new jobs. Rising housing costs in both Whistler and Vancouver were forcing young people out that wanted land of their own and many of them settled in Squamish, inspired by the desire for an lifestyle defined by the outdoors. That fuelled the real estate industry.

Squamish keeps enticing that middle zone. With that comes new independent businesses, new cafes and restaurants. Tech companies and entrepreneurs are replacing the labourers who once ran the town and almost all of it is driven by the youth. The new families moving in inspires in some the idea that there's an endless supply of beginnings, a sense that this is the only the beginning.

But the mayor doesn't see it that way. No, for Greg Gardner, a beginning would imply some kind of end and there is no end.

"I guess I'm not a subscriber to this theory that all of a sudden Squamish has been discovered and exploding," Gardner says, sitting in his spacious office at his car dealership along Highway 99. "I mean, the people that moved here 50 years thought it was discovered and exploding. And the people who discover it 50 years from now will probably think the same thing. It's just a continuum where we just keep getting better, hopefully."

The good news for Gardner and others who believe that "better" equates "growth" - and there are many - is that Squamish's population is set to double by 2031, according to a municipal study conducted before the 2010 Olympics. With the hype surrounding that event, Gardner took little stock in those numbers but now, a year and a half later, he says they're still on target for that.

"Squamish will continue to grow. I don't know how it won't given its location," he says.

Real estate agents have been targetting Vancouver's Yaletown residents, appealing to young professionals who want to start, or have already started, families and are seeking a different quality of life. This is largely an educated demographic with urban tastes that will invariably shift the look and feel of the town.

"This bodes very well for Squamish," Gardner says. "That's exactly the demographic you want to hit, whether it's for community events or for social issues or for economic development, young people are the people making it happen."

Plans are in the works to develop the town's waterfront, owned by the District of Squamish, into a community with strong arts focus. Council has given considerable thought as to how to facilitate a strong arts and culture community on the peninsula by constructing a Granville Island-inspired boardwalk with condominiums, public art displays and a performance art venue.

"It encapsulates our vision for Squamish," Gardner says. "All the units out there might have a portion - three dollars a month, whatever it is - going toward arts and culture, and we think people would be happy to do that because having a vibrant arts and culture scene down there will increase the value of the land. We've put a lot of thought into that."

Krisztina Egyed, chair of the Squamish Arts Council (SAC) and lifetime Squamish resident, says council support for the arts has been pivotal for its successes over the last three years. She's been with the SAC since 2004 and says they've come a long way since then in establishing a strong support system for local arts and culture.

The Squamish Arts Council has existed in various forms since the 1940s and has been a registered as a society for about 40 years. Despite its industrial heritage, Squamish had a rich artistic heritage, albeit a very self-contained one. Egyed says that communities in isolation had to rely on themselves for entertainment and the scene in Squamish was much richer before the highway into town was built in the early 1960s. Once access to the city improved, Egyed says the wealth of artistic experience waned. But it survived. Artists remained. Theatre troupes came and went. Festivals did too. The arts were ready to grow when the time was right.

"Since cultural tourism has been recognized as an economic generator, there's (been) a lot more attention paid to arts and culture for a variety of reasons," she says. "There's more funding for it, for a variety of reasons. Other people that aren't involved in the sector understand the benefits of supporting it. So there's a lot more funding for the arts than there ever was."

The district gave $15,000 to the SAC this year alone, with another $5,000 coming from Arts BC. The challenge now is to build a community where artists of all varieties can create on full-time basis. To do this, it needs to foster a culture of art buyers. To do that, it will take a community of artists who understand the international arts scene and know what the cultural tourist is looking for. Right now, it has the potential. Squamish is on the road to satisfying what would qualify them to be an international destination but Egyed says it needs more venues, more time spent on creating and, as always, more money. Government funding goes a long way in supporting the venues but an arts scene, like any business, needs to be self-sustaining.

"The danger is assuming that it's an easy thing to do, as far as becoming an arts destination," Egyed says. "I think what we don't want is people that don't understand that, and are not participating at that level, to become the decision makers."

Squamish needs more reasons for people to visit. The music festivals are a good start but added together they make up only one week of the 52 that make up the year. Whistler has the mountains and everything that has happened in town has been a result of the ski hills opening in 1968. Squamish needs its own version of Blackcomb Mountain and the answer could be in the arts.

But in the meantime, the new hum riding through the town will only get louder. The more people move in, the louder it will get. It's in good shape, folks. Something's rumbling, all right. It might be something big.

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