The population of Squamish has soared as people seeking an alternative to Metro Vancouver’s expensive housing market have been moving to Squamish. Now, the district is feeling the strain of this influx and is seeking to manage future infrastructure upgrades.
The population increased almost 15 per cent from the census in 2006 to 2011, and then grew another 16 per cent from 17,158 to 19,893 in the 2016 census, making Squamish among the fastest growing communities in B.C., according to Statistics Canada.
It also has a younger age profile, according to Statistics Canada, which pegs the percentage of children, young adults and adults in early working years in Squamish at levels higher than those in Vancouver and the rest of B.C. Almost 60 per cent of its population is under the age of 40, compared to 49 per cent in Metro Vancouver and 47 per cent in the rest of B.C., according to Statistics Canada.
There are many reasons, but Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman says the real driver is young families seeking Squamish as a more affordable alternative to other Metro Vancouver areas such as Maple Ridge, Coquitlam or Surrey, which have had sharp real estate price increases in recent years.
And entrepreneurs, such as brewers and chocolatiers, with some big city flair are setting up in Squamish to serve them.
Folinsbee says the ice broke in March 2014 when the Sea to Sky Gondola was built. Others mention January 2015 when the New York Times named Squamish one of the top 52 places to go to in the world, putting it alongside the likes of Milan, Singapore, Burgundy in France and the North Coast of Peru.
“There is a new crop of people. The demographics are changing. It used to be a mill town. Now there are new, young families and (well-heeled) visitors and they have different interests,” says Folinsbee.
“There’s been an explosion of businesses and entrepreneurs. There are three cideries. There’s someone making kombucha next to us. We started a craft beverage association.”
“It’s hard to predict which kinds of new businesses might pop up,” says Heintzman.
“In the business park, we have seen, it started out with big box stores and some mechanics. And now, we are seeing breweries, trampolines, coffee roasters. There are some outdoor recreation, bike and apparel places.”
Reacting to this means changing the infrastructure plan a little, she says.
“We are looking at how to make those areas friendly for pedestrians and cyclists as use changes. There are people walking around, milling about, so we need transportation connections, not just big wide roads for big wide trucks.”
Adjusting to unexpected patterns is one thing. Sometimes, it’s just the prospect of an increase in cars such as in downtown Squamish.
Right now, “it’s one road in and one road out,” though there is an emergency dirt road, says Heintzman.
Last week, the district requested proposals for a “downtown Squamish transportation analysis and entrance study.”
With “rapid growth and development” as well as “anticipated growth” with residential and commercial units being added to the downtown area, there will need to be a secondary access to downtown. On the table is building a new bridge to extend Pemberton Avenue over the Mamquam Blind channel. It would run parallel to Highway 99, follow the rail line and include a public transit route and multi-use path extension.
“I live right there. It’s a good thing for downtown because it’s experiencing explosive growth with high-quality shops as destinations,” says Kevin Young, chocolatier and co-owner of Xoco Westcoast Chocolate, who grew up in Squamish.
Two decades ago, his mother ran a traditional chocolate shop in downtown Squamish before they sold it and moved to Langley. Three years ago, they returned and bought the shop back. They rebranded it and — he having learned the art at his mother’s hand — they went into business together, exclusively using French chocolate brand Cacao Barry that has been produced outside of Paris since the 1840s.
“Our downtown could have to move somewhere else if we don’t build on it and make getting in and out of it better,” says Young. “It’s a street that I watched the Santa Claus parade when I was three years old, and there is history and heritage there. So, he said, you want to manage growth so it can continue to be the centre.
“The highway intersections are failing,” says Ted Prior, who has lived in Squamish for more than 35 years and served several terms as councillor, but will not be running again in the fall.
“You can see it on Facebook groups. People are complaining at rush hour, you have to wait two or three lights to get on the highway and you can be backed up 300 metres.”
Over the years, he says that being on council, he’s been part of approving real estate projects, but when he looks back, he can see the consequences of the deals more clearly.
“The tension is that I don’t think we are getting enough from (real estate) developers. We need a firehall. We need a sheet of ice. Community centres. We are approving these bigger developments at small town capacity and I don’t think we understand what we should be getting.”
Heintzman says the feeling of rapid growth can make people feel uneasy, but there are solid, long-range plans in place.
“There is some angst in the community when it comes to talking about (future amenities and services). We have master plans for water, master plans for sewer, parks and recreation master plans. They are all strategized with our financial plans.”
Indeed, there are signs of the district keeping on top of these plans for the future.
The other request for proposal it made last month was for an audit of landfill solid waste “to have an understanding of the materials being landfilled and the materials that could be diverted from residential, multi-family home, industrial, commercial and institutional, and construction and demolition sectors.”
The background is that district’s landfill reached capacity in 2017 and it is building a landfill expansion that will expand the landfill lifespan until 2026.
“We are seeing a double whammy at the landfill because there is more population, but also more construction and demolition with the building boom. If that hadn’t happened, we could have easily used it for another decade,” says Chris Wyckham, director of engineering for the district.
In another indicator of that busting-at-the-seams feeling, Folinsbee of Backcountry Brewing says he is seeing the first signs of staff housing being a problem in Squamish. One or two of his workers have moved elsewhere because they couldn’t find something affordable and he anticipates having to buy staff housing to keep his business humming.
“I never thought it could be a problem,” he says. But “there’s been exponential growth.”