By reinventing itself as a haven for the creative class, this waterfront mill town has revived its economy
“Two ferries can’t be wrong.” That wry local bumper sticker encapsulates the Powell River attitude: sure, the crossings make for a long trip to and from Vancouver, but so what? We have ocean views and beaches with some of the warmest ocean waters in B.C., we have affordable property, we’re not afraid of emerging industries, and we’re a community that does it on its own.
The future was uncertain for this former single-industry town through the 1990s, when the Catalyst Paper Corp. mill that formed the backbone of Powell River’s economy began its decline from a peak of nearly 3,000 staff down to its current several hundred. But after a local Vancouver Island University professor offered research showing that millennials choose where they live based on lifestyle first and find opportunity later—the reverse of traditional boomer and Gen X behaviour—the city began investing more heavily in recreation. The Sunshine Coast now has North America’s longest hut-to-hut hiking trail, the region has become a hot spot for road and mountain bikers, and nearby Desolation Sound is one of B.C.’s most popular boating destinations.
Powell River also launched a YouTube campaign aimed at getting people up for a visit, hoping the cheap-by-Vancouver-standards heritage houses, accessible nature and strong community spirit would inspire young creative industry types to stay on and generate their own economy.
That’s what they seem to be doing. The industrial power grid that served the mill—plus a $17-million fibre upgrade and frequent short flights to Vancouver that let business travellers skip the ferries—is drawing pot farms, animation and virtual reality studios, and even some interest from bitcoin mining operations. The onetime millworker neighbourhood of Townsite is now hipster-cool, with a coffee roaster, craft brewer and boutique hotel, and edge-of-town areas like Wildwood are live-the-dream central for artisan food producers and back-to-the-landers.
With its treaty now in place, the Tla’amin First Nation is expanding its commercial and industrial interests, and light industry like aerospace and aquaculture is filling some of the gaps that declines in resource extraction and pulp left behind. The ocean outlook and friendly, safe vibe have also caught the attention of the international education sector: a planned 400-student campus for the China-based Sino Bright private high-school chain is expected to drive about $10.5 million in economic activity annually once it’s up and running.
Although the most recent census count was too early to show any population growth, last year’s 40-percent rise in property values and building permits that skyrocketed to more than $14 million for the past two years running suggest that Powell River’s efforts are gaining traction. That rush on real estate may detract from the city’s affordability lure, but detached homes still cost roughly a quarter of those in Metro Vancouver. As a result, expect more house-hungry Lower Mainlanders to cast their eyes up the coast.
Household age (0-45, 45-64, 64+): 20%, 43%, 37%
University grads: 13.3%
Average household income: $76,709
Average household income under 45: $75,923
Five-year income growth, 2012-17: 13.3%
Five-year population growth: –2.8%
Average detached home price: $389,652
Average condominium price: $218,000
Average monthly rent for a two-bedroom: $925
Average annual household spending on shelter: $17,968
Key industries: Pulp and paper; forestry; international education; food production; limestone quarrying
Notable employers: Catalyst Paper Corp.; Inclusion Powell River; School District 47; Western Forest Products Inc.
Regional unemployment: 5.8% (February)
Total value of building permits issued in 2017: $14,088,436
Change from 2016: –6%
Cost of a business licence: $100-$1,500
Average processing time for a building permit: 3.5 weeks
Business property tax rate: $19.67 per $1,000 of assessed value (2017)
Average office lease rate per sq. ft./year: $10-$12
Average retail lease rate: $10-$12
QUALITY OF LIFE
Major post-secondary institutions: Vancouver Island University
Major recreational amenities: Powell River Recreation Complex (including two NHL-regulation rinks, aquatic centre, theatre, fitness centre); several parks and playing fields; Powell River forest canoe route; Duck Lake hiking and biking area; Desolation Sound boating and paddling; Inland Lake provincial park; multiple lake and ocean beaches; fishing; scuba diving areas; Sunshine Coast Trail
Key annual events: Powell River Film Festival; Pacific Region International Summer Music Academy; International Choral Kathaumixw choral symphony festival; BC Bike Race; Blackberry Festival; Sunshine Music Festival
Average annual household spending on recreation: $4,230
Residents who walk or bike to work: 4.2%