Steven Brooks has revitalized Powell River's Townsite district since buying an apartment block there in 2004
The picturesque Sunshine Coast community is enjoying an economic revival, with help from entrepreneurs and young families fleeing the mainland
Colleen McClean stares at the ceiling where her vent fan should already be installed and sighs. It’s just another in a long list of hiccups and delays that keep pushing back the opening date of her bakery, Hearth & Grain, in the recently launched Townsite Market; today’s problem was a permit that hadn’t arrived in time. But we’re in Powell River, population 13,000. Surely the permit process is easier here than in a city the size of Vancouver? McClean laughs. Powell River is booming right now, and there’s only one building inspector on staff. “Maybe I should drop by with some cookies,” she jokes.
Coleen McClean was a celebrated Vancouver chef before she took her talents to Townsite
Powell River is a community used to welcoming newcomers. Over the years it’s been a haven for hippies, draft dodgers and folks who yearn to live off-grid and under the radar. Its remote, picture-postcard locale on the edge of Desolation Sound has also long been a destination retirement spot. Now, however, it’s proving an attractive option for folks priced out by the affordability crisis on the mainland and looking to do business somewhere the margins seem more profitable. “Come for a visit, stay for a lifetime,” proclaim its marketing materials. And that’s exactly what people do.
Back in December 2017, McClean—whose resumé includes stints at the legendary and since closed Vancouver restaurants Lumière and Feenie’s, as well as the Irish Heather (where she was executive chef)—was teaching me and a friend how to make traditional stollen bread. She had given up restaurant life in 2010 to become a chef instructor, but what had sounded like a fairly bold move at the time paled against the news she announced as we waited for our fruit-filled dough to prove.
She was leaving town to open her own business, two ferry rides away on the far point of the Sunshine Coast. Fed up with sleeping at her sister’s place in Richmond while socking away money to fund a home purchase that wasn’t any closer to reality even after seven years of solid saving, she had decided to secure her pensionless future a different way.
Likewise Paul Kamon, executive director of Sunshine Coast Tourism: back in 2011, he and his wife packed up their kids and hightailed it out of Vancouver, which had become too much of a struggle and increasingly unaffordable. Kamon—who was, and still is, one of the key people behind Vancouver Craft Beer Week—had visited a friend in Powell River and heard there was a brewery opening up. He saw Powell River as a place ready to be regenerated, and so when he was offered an entry-level job at Sunshine Coast Tourism, he figured he had nothing to lose—not least when he found himself still able to afford a five-bedroom property on the water.
Kamon is one of the city’s new breed of evangelists: “My underlying mandate is to reel in as many of my friends as I can.” He laughs, but his enthusiasm is sincere. “All investment starts with a visit. Get people here, let them see how amazing it is, and they’ll find a way to make it work. In the past, people would find work and build a life. Nowadays, people find a life and then they figure the work out.”
Powell River's Main Street
Location, location, location
When Kamon first visited Powell River, he saw that a small Mexican restaurant with a house behind it was up for sale for a song: “I stood there and thought maybe I should just change gears and start selling tacos.” A fleeting notion for him, the taco shack became a catalyst for successful Powell River restaurant brand Point Group Hospitality.
Sarah and Mike Salome had built their careers at Cactus Club Cafe, assistant managing front-of-house in downtown Vancouver and working as a chef in Abbotsford, respectively. In 2012, a regular customer told Sarah he was looking for a husband-and-wife team to take over a business in Harrison Hot Springs. They decided it was time to go it alone, quit their jobs, put together a business plan and were all set to move when, three weeks before they were due to take over, the deal fell through.
“We had no jobs, and suddenly no future,” Sarah recalls. “Mike’s parents had retired to Powell River about seven years earlier. It was Easter, and they invited us out for a visit to take some time to relax and consider our next move.”
It didn’t take long: perusing a local real estate magazine on the ferry, the couple spotted a tiny box ad for a Mexican restaurant (the house was no longer attached), listed by the desperate-to-retire owner “for the price of an inexpensive used car.” They decided they might as well view it. “We looked at each other, and the butterflies started,” Sarah says.
They quickly began asking questions of everyone they knew, and found out that the Mexican restaurant, La Casita, was something of a local icon. “We went straight back home, packed up our apartment in Maple Ridge and moved two weeks later,” Sarah recalls. Two weeks after that, they opened as Costa del Sol Latin Cuisine. “We thought, How busy can we be?” Mike says with a laugh. “We got our butts kicked. The second day a customer sitting eating lunch asked if we needed any help, and we hired her on the spot. She worked for us for five years.”
Since then, they’ve had two children and opened the larger, modern casual Coastal Cookery in 2015 and, in 2017, an Italian restaurant, Culaccíno. Three restaurants on the main strip of Powell River is enough, Sarah says, but the plan is to keep growing, and for that they’re looking across the water at Campbell River. “We are really proud of the training we have brought to the business, and we have amazing staff who we want to keep, and for that we need to offer them opportunities to progress and move up.”
Sunshine Coast Trail
In his office at city hall, Scott Randolph, director of economic development and communications for the City of Powell River, tells me that local real estate agents have posted banner years for 2016 through 2018, with well over 50 percent of sales to buyers from outside the city. The value of building permits doubled from 2017 to 2018, and elementary school enrolment (perhaps the true test of a community’s sustainability) increased from 2,054 in 2016 to 2,278 last year.
This growth didn’t happen by accident, but—like the city itself—was created by design. Townsite, a planned community that provided workers for Western Canada’s first pulp and paper mill, founded in 1908, was the first settler development in Powell River (named in the 1880s for B.C.’s then–superintendent of Indian Affairs, Israel Wood Powell, after his travels up the coast). For decades, the mill (in its heyday, one in 25 of the world’s newspapers was printed on its paper) was a huge economic driver for the city and its main source of steady employment.
Townsite was classified as a National Historic District in 1995, but that same decade saw the beginning of the mill’s decline, and in 2012, it was downsized to a fraction of its former glory. With layoffs and natural retirement, that cut Powell River’s tax revenue for the year in half. The industry that once employed more than 3,000 now paid salaries to roughly 350. The city was moribund; it desperately needed an injection of new life.
In 2014, Powell River launched the Resident Attraction Campaign, a pro-active measure designed to draw young families, telecommuters and others under 45 to relocate there for employment or to start small businesses. The incentives were significant: the opportunity to purchase a house for a fraction of Lower Mainland costs (prices have since risen, but this spring, three-bedroom single family homes still averaged about $250,000 to $300,000); a $17-million investment by Telus Corp. in fast-connectivity fibre optics that makes working remotely much easier; strong employment prospects in tourism and health care; a community that punches above its weight in cultural opportunities; and, of course, easy access to some of the province’s most beautiful scenery, including the Sunshine Coast Trail.
The age balance of migrants slowly started to shift, and in 2018, half of all new residents of Powell River fell into the more youthful category, with the other half made up of traditional retirees. People arrive from all over, with most incoming from the Squamish-to-Hope corridor. (Randolph tells me that Squamish alone lost 40 families to Powell River last year, pushed out by rising costs and changing demographics as Vancouver commuters trade off between the daily drive along the Sea-to-Sky Highway and the lower home prices to be found farther north.)
The campaign found its groove in social media, where the city leveraged the enthusiasm of locals into influential shares in significant numbers across personal and professional networks, with videos of recent arrivals enthusing about their new lives.
One name that comes up again and again when talking about the regeneration of Powell River, and specifically Townsite, is Steven Brooks. A senior computer programmer and analyst with 30 years of experience consulting, building and overseeing the mainframe architectures of Crown corporation and provincial ministry systems, Brooks fell in love with the neighbourhood two decades ago while looking around for real estate investments.
Five years later, he bought a derelict apartment block in Townsite, gradually moving out the drug addicts who had taken up residence as the area became more and more rundown. He’s been splitting his life between his West Vancouver home and Powell River ever since, but with the opening of the market, he’s now almost full-time in Townsite, living in a mock Tudor heritage building erected by the Bank of Montreal.
He leases out the ground level of the former bank to a yoga studio/gallery space at the front, with 32 Lakes, a coffee roasting company started by transplants from North Vancouver, Margot and Nathan Jantz, renting the back. Brooks lives upstairs in the airy, beautifully preserved former bank manager’s residence. “This one was a present to myself,” he says, smiling.
After Brooks began renovating the apartment block, he bought the historic post office building. When two local women, Michelle Zutz and Karen Skadsheim, fed up with drinking Labatt and Lucky Lager (craft beer was nowhere to be found), asked him if he’d consider opening a brewery there, Brooks didn’t just say yes, he asked if they needed help with a business plan (they did) and seed money (yes again).
“Steve is the perfect angel investor,” Zutz says. “We didn’t know anything about making beer, but that didn’t put him off.” They hired Belgian brewmaster Cédric Dauchot, widely considered one of B.C.’s best beer makers, and poured their first growler in 2012. As the popularity of craft beer exploded, Townsite Brewing has been not only successful as a business but a driver of tourism to Townsite.
Brooks is hoping his most recent purchase will prove the venture to solidify Townsite’s renewal: a site dating from 1941 that originally served as a shopping hub for the once-bustling community. The renovated and rebranded Townsite Market officially opened last December, though some parts were still under construction, including K-Lumet, an employment and training social enterprise that began in Europe and will employ workers with intellectual disabilities to make fire starters from recycled material.
Another section still to be finished is the Innovation Hub, something that Brooks, economic development head Randolph and Sunshine Coast Tourism’s Kamon are excited about. A year ago, they identified new residents who were working remotely for the tech sector in areas as diverse as the film industry, non-profits and global e-commerce.
With funding from the Island Coastal Economic Trust, they set up the Powell River Creative Economy and Innovation Initiative, holding meet-and-greets and brainstorming sessions at Brooks’s home, looking for ways to make connections and spark ideas. Once complete, the 1,000-square-foot hub will provide hot desks and other networking and collaborative opportunities, with the mission to expand the city’s creative economy.
Walking through the market, Brooks introduces me to the retailers—offering everything from fruit and vegetables to essential oils and herbal teas, artworks to furniture and fashion—many of them new business owners, and most of them women. He’s kept the rent and overheads low in an effort to help these small businesses establish themselves.
If Townsite Market is a passion project for Brooks, he’s surrounded by equally committed entrepreneurs, like Paula Ansell, an Australian whose Just Soul Food booth is bedecked with the prettiest (and tastiest) raw, vegan, sugar-free treats you’ve ever seen (and is already selling 1,000 pieces per week); and Kajal Kromm, a former White Spot server, who moved from Vancouver with her family in 2015 to give her kids a childhood full of fresh air. She opened an esthetician business in the market because she wants to “give back, and help make people feel good about themselves.”
Back in Vancouver, I hear that the venting is finally in at Hearth & Grain, and Colleen McClean is in the final push to open her doors. She says the move was down to more than knowing she would likely never own a home in Vancouver; she also had no hope of starting her own business. Kamon got her to visit Powell River, but it was Brooks, she says, who convinced her to take the leap, even offering a low-cost rental in his apartment block to ease the transition. “I don’t think that I would have moved here if Steve hadn’t been such a great guy and been so supportive of me and the entire project,” McClean says. “He’s the real deal.”
JP Brosseau (right) and husband Kelly Belanger
Stay With Us
Proving that you can go home again, this Powell River native has transformed a local hotel into a community gathering spot
JP Brosseau was born and raised in Powell River, and he couldn’t get away from the place fast enough; growing up gay there was a miserable experience. He landed in Cold Lake, Alberta, where he met and lived with his now-husband, Kelly Belanger. The pair dreamed of opening a hotel and restaurant on a beach in Mexico, but on his way to spend a few months in the sun looking for a good spot, Brosseau brought Belanger to Powell River to meet his mother, Edie Rae.
Belanger fell hard for the place and, noticing that the Old Courthouse Inn in Townsite was up for sale, somehow persuaded Brosseau to return to build a business in his childhood home.
Twenty years later, Brosseau has made himself central to the community: in Edie Rae’s Café, he’s created a bustling breakfast meeting place; he supports and mentors LGBTQ youth; and he’s developed strong bonds with local First Nations. He plans to build small individual housing units for the elderly on an unused parking lot behind the inn. “Older queer people and Indigenous folks don’t necessarily feel comfortable in a general care facility,” Brosseau explains. “I want to offer them an inclusive alternative.”
Darren Robinson/Sunshine Coast Tourism