Squamish: Squish to Swish?

At the pool table in the Chieftain Hotel pub, a fortyish circus roustabout with bleached hair, tanned arms and prison tattoos knocks down the last three solids of an eight-ball rack.


At the pool table in the Chieftain Hotel pub, a fortyish circus roustabout with bleached hair, tanned arms and prison tattoos knocks down the last three solids of an eight-ball rack.

The carnival is camped out on the waterfront this weekend, on Nexen Canada Inc.’s old chemical plant lands, and five other West Coast Amusements employees are clustered at a nearby table. But aside from them, the place is pretty much empty at 10 p.m. on a Friday night. The two bartenders are cleaning glasses and wiping down tables.

Despite the cheap drinks and loud music, there’s that uncomfortable am-I-in-the-wrong-place feeling in the air. If things don’t pick up soon, the night will fizzle. “It’s slow here in general these days,” says one of the DJs.

A drywaller by day, he’s in his mid-20s, with longish hair curling from under a climber’s toque. “This used to be the logger bar and then it got all cracked out, so it got kind of a bad rap.” He downs a shot called a Prairie Fire: tequila and Tabasco. While the Chieftain has a recurring role in the ABC TV series Men in Trees – a sort of Sex and the City-Northern Exposure hybrid – as the beloved social hub of fictional Elmo, Alaska, reality has treated it less kindly.

The collapse of the resource economy and the rise of Highway 99 have caused its clientele to dwindle over the past 15 years, leaving it the haunt of unsavoury desperados. Raj Gounder, the new manager, recently shooed away the drug dealers, renovated the hotel suites and installed a martini bar along with a few chandeliers, resulting in some sporadic successes.

“Big nights still happen here,” the DJ says. “Last Tuesday the place was packed.” But so far tonight, we’re still waiting for the party to get started. It’s a familiar feeling in downtown Squamish. Step out the side door of the Chieftain and the main street of Cleveland Avenue is void of cars. The sidewalks are vacant. Aside from the comparatively upscale Howe Sound BrewPub down the street, the only other venue open for business is the Ocean Port Hotel, serving up a modestly scruffy, Chieftain-style mix of cheap draft and classic rock.

Tucked onto a flat peninsula at the south edge of Squamish, most Sea-to-Sky tourists don’t even know the town centre exists, which is too bad. In daylight the humble grid of two-storey hotels, shops and restaurants has a million-postcard view of the Stawamus Chief’s sheer granite face and a charming, if vestigial, small-town vibe. Nicknamed Swampish, Squampton or “The Squish,” the sprawling district has long been snickered at as a fast-food, gas-and-sip highway strip of pulp-mill hicks.

For Whistler-bound tourists and Lower Mainland residents, Squamish has traditionally been the place to pick up your discount 7-11 lift ticket on the way up to the mountain and a burger on the way down. Highway-centric planning – what SFU planning professor Gordon Price calls the “Kelowna model” of development – has starved the downtown core, and with it businesses such as the Chieftain.

Such abandonment is an old story in North America, and highways from the Yukon to Florida are littered with the skeletons of 1950s-era town centres. But Squamish has something they didn’t have. Step off the Chieftain’s sidewalk on a night like this one, the cool evening whipped with breezes off Howe Sound, and head west toward the water; in five minutes you’ll be standing on the old Nexen brownfield.

Except for a few pole buildings and the creepy tableau of a powered-down circus, the land is vacant. This 24-hectare expanse of muddy gravel, sprouted with alder and cottonwood saplings, is one of the most precious pieces of undeveloped waterfront in North America. It’s also a kind of toxic hallowed ground, a cemetery of Squamish’s past as well as the foundation of its future.

“Where else on the West Coast,” asks Ted Prior, as we chunk over potholes and washboarded gravel in his well-used, child-smudged van, “would you find 60 acres of undeveloped waterfront in a deep-water port an hour from a major city, surrounded by world-class skiing, climbing, mountain-biking, hiking and windsurfing?”

The description is standard for boosters of downtown Squamish, and Prior, a shortish, balding local developer with a barrel chest, doesn’t simply talk; he exclaims. But he lives downtown with his family, and his enthusiasm is that of a sincere booster, not a huckster. He’s a member of the Squamish Oceanfront Development Corporation (SODC) board, an arm’s-length company created by the district, patterned after a similar board in Chilliwack.

Like thousands of other Squamish residents, Prior is equal parts excited and frustrated by the still-fallow downtown waterfront. “We’ve got to get everyone on the same side. We’re missing the boat on the Olympics, and the longer we wait on moving forward, the more it’s costing us. Negative people have been steering the ship in this town, people who only want to look at what could go wrong, not at the opportunity that’s right in front of them.”

From a sociological perspective, he says, the ups and downs of Squamish’s past 15 years are fascinating. “I was almost thinking I should go back to university and do a thesis on it.” He laughs, but with an edge. We pass the muddy log sorts on the adjacent Westmana lands, giant pickers stacking stripped fir logs into neat piles.

Prior pulls the truck into a wide, brush-grown lot near the site of the old chemical plant and he sweeps his arm in an arc to include the surrounding forest, mountains, ocean and, especially, the unused land we’re parked on. “You see?” he asks. I do see. But it takes some research before I understand what I’m looking at.

Before the Squamish waterfront was a barren campground for travelling carnies, it was the British Columbia Rail Co.’s (BC Rail) land, rented out to the Nexen chlor-alkali plant. Hydrochloric acid and caustic soda – essential bleaching ingredients in the pulp-and-paper industry – were shipped out by the ton from the plant, which nicely complemented the Woodfibre plant across the water.

Locals had been collecting paycheques from the Woodfibre pulp mill since 1912, and, as late as the 1980s, few locals believed the plants would ever shut down. But in 1991, Calgary-based oil-and-gas producer Nexen closed the doors on the Squamish plant for good, the first in a series of economic blows the town would absorb over the next 15 years.

In 2003 International Forest Products Ltd. (Interfor) closed the sawmill next door to the Nexen plant, eliminating 117 jobs. After the province sold BC Rail the following year, Canadian National Railway Co. laid off 80 maintenance workers from the rail yards. The haymaker that sent the resource industry to the mat was the closure of the Woodfibre mill in 2006 after 94 years of operation, which put 325 people out of work. All told, the town lost around 600 jobs and $3 million in annual tax revenue over four years. Not that Squamish didn’t see it coming. Since the 1980s, threats of factory closures had hung over the town like the pervasive funk of the pulp mill. Council members and residents had been arguing for a diversified economy for years, foreseeing tourism, light industry and high tech as essential to the town’s future.

Dave McRae, owner of Triack Resources Ltd., a Squamish recycling and selective-timber-harvesting firm, was one of them. A square-shouldered man in a black Kenworth work jacket, the 47-year-old former logger and sawmill owner was one of the first to see the downtown waterfront in the terms many councillors and SODC officers have since used: a northern Granville Island, False Creek or Steveston.

Over lunch in the Howe Sound BrewPub – unlike the Chieftain, the kind of place that serves pepper jack-stuffed “potato kayaks” and organic green salads – McRae talks about his experiences with the waterfront lands over the past decade. “BC Rail tried to get industry down there for years, but nobody came knocking. Back in 1997, I could see the value of the land was greater than anyone recognized at the time, and that in 10 years the Interfor mill would be gone too – that there wouldn’t be any industry on the waterfront at all.” McRae bought a parcel of land downtown, hoping to turn it into a Granville Island-style market, but his development permits were delayed by successive city councils, delays that he sees as bad-faith stalling.

For eight years, McRae says, he couldn’t get a road or a building on the site, and in 2005 he was forced to sell the property to pay off debts. McRae is not a wealthy developer, nor an idealistic transplant from Vancouver. His great-grandfather moved to Squamish in 1907, and his father was born downtown in a house on Cleveland Avenue, two blocks up the main street from the Chieftain.

His family has been working in Squamish forestry for four generations, and, along with volunteering on arts and school committees, he’s sat on three different working groups since 2000 trying to facilitate waterfront development and economic diversification. All communities need a three-pronged approach, he says. “You need environmental, industrial and residential. If you’re thinking you’ll live off condos and hotels, it won’t happen.” [pagebreak] Tale of two cities Like many Squamish residents involved with the waterfront in the last decade, McRae seems to suffer from post-traumatic stress. When he talks about his experiences with small-town politics, his hands start to shake and his neck starts to redden.

“If you go and talk to people around town, the biggest single complaint is that the town doesn’t seem to evolve,” he says, leaning forward and gripping his mug. “It seems to be artificially held back. That’s because there’s a power base, a hidden autocracy, in this town that’s rooted itself in place in the past 70 or 80 years. These are people so ingrained and stuck in their thinking that they can’t stand to see things move forward.” Talk of an invisible autocracy sounds paranoid until you spend a few days in Squamish.

Lift the lid off anyone who has attended city council or SODC meetings over the years – anyone who wants the downtown to be a mixed-use core rather than a heavy-industry platform – and you’ll hear an identical rant about hidden forces and invisible puppet masters, one that generally lasts 45 minutes.

“There are 1,200 negative people in Squamish,” says one long-time resident. “I’ll say one thing for them: all of them vote.”

Unexplained permit delays, economic reprisals, biased local media accounts and punitive building inspections are all common accusations. McRae and Prior both gave input on the “Squamish 2000” framework, which envisioned the peninsula waterfront as a mix of residential, recreational and commercial space on the spectacular waterfront, perhaps featuring a small university campus.

These changes would revitalize the town centre, they argued, and attract exactly the kind of entrepreneurial investment the city needed. But resource-industry proponents, the so-called Old Guard, were not convinced. Unlike the camp dubbed New Directions, they wanted a portion of the BC Rail lands dedicated to a wood-chip storage facility, where 10-metre-high mounds of wood waste and hog fuel would be loaded from rail cars onto barges bound for the Howe Sound Pulp and Paper mill in Port Mellon. This would effectively put the kibosh on waterfront residential-commercial development.

The year-long battle over the chip facility in 2000-2001 was well documented in the press and would have provided plenty of material for a very different kind of TV series than Men in Trees. Given the small-town politics, dystopian bureaucracy and rumours of behind-the-scenes cabals, it would have made a good Atom Egoyan miniseries, a sort of municipal-planning version of Twin Peaks. Prior and McRae, along with current mayor Ian Sutherland, helped organize a group of New Directions residents calling themselves CHIPS (Citizens for a Healthy, Innovative, Progressive Squamish).

The coalition, representing about 2,000 residents, took the city council’s zoning permit for the chip plant to the B.C. Supreme Court. The chip facility, they said, was inconsistent with the official community plan, was too stark a transition from nearby neighbourhoods and several of its components – running a shipping terminal, loading and storing hog fuel – failed to meet the definition of light industry.

The court upheld the challenge, saying the chip plant was appropriate for general industrial zoning, but not light industrial. City-council members had pushed ahead with a public referendum, but, at a heated town-hall meeting that spilled into the parking lot, citizens gave it the thumbs down. This was the turning point for Squamish: the end of resource-industry dependence. The waterfront, however, remained in limbo.

Bitterness over the chip-facility fight lingers to this day, but to say the issue split the town in half isn’t quite right. Despite the easy divisions between the Old Guard and New Directions camps, the great majority of residents wanted the chip facility in Squamish, just not on the downtown waterfront.

That the city council was unwilling or unable to broker such a compromise says something about its competence and also about the waterfront’s symbolic nature: as it goes, so goes Squamish.

Tipping the waterfront in favour of “new economy” initiatives – learning institutions; dense, lifestyle-based real-estate development; “creative-class” entrepreneurs; agile light industry – meant the beginning of the end for a resource-town culture established over 94 years.

Dave Morris, known around town as The Bear, is a grizzly-sized former logger with a bushy, greying beard. As a 10-year-old, he moved to Squamish with his family in 1959, and, like many of the loosely defined Old Guard, he has mixed feelings about the direction in which the town is going. Sitting in an armchair in the living room of his downtown split-level, he shifts his weight and takes a deep breath when I ask his opinion about waterfront development.

“Things are changing so much,” he says. “I’m not against development – it’s going to happen sooner or later – but I guess I’m just a hometown boy. My way of life is gone. People who have lived here only a few years are calling the shots.”

Morris, who used to drive Whistler snowplows and now operates bulldozers and excavators for a Squamish construction company, shakes his head at the changes on the Sea-to- Sky corridor. Where it used to be the same four cars driving from Squamish to Whistler every morning, now it’s 400. He longs for the days of a blue-collar small town.

“We used to have mayors and council members who owned logging companies and drugstores, guys who answered your questions. They’d talk to you on the street, you know, ask you what your problem is. Then they’d say, ‘Okay, so what are you going to do to help?’ But these guys don’t talk to you even if you’ve lived here for 20, 40 years. You have to scream your head off to get them to listen.” When asked what he would do to change things, Morris leans back in his armchair.

For starters, he’d rein in downtown developers, who, he says, are already getting out of hand, degrading infrastructure that was poor to begin with. Like many Squamish residents, he’s concerned about the state of the downtown peninsula’s dike and drainage system, which, he says, has been compromised by new construction.

“Your first obligation when developing is how you’re affecting people who are already there, and that’s definitely not happening, in my mind. One developer filled in a pond that held all our water during high-tide periods,” he says. “It was very deep, very long. Ditches and basements are flooding more than ever.”

Talk of obligations to first residents might strike the Squamish Nation as ironic, but Morris represents many residents who are suspicious of big plans for the waterfront. “If they’re going to develop, there should be no net loss in quality of life,” says a man who lives in the same neighbourhood as Morris. “There’s nobody guaranteeing that. Four thousand condos downtown doesn’t necessarily make things better; it just makes somebody rich. I don’t give a shit if they tell us there’ll be more people in the stores – I don’t own a store.”

While Morris has since managed to get the ear of city council on drainage issues, so far downtown development has resulted in several banal, fortress-like townhouse complexes and, in many cases, made infrastructure worse, not better. Bike trails and greenways have been damaged, and the political will to protect natural areas appears secondary to green-lighting projects. Two consecutive building inspectors have quit because they were apparently swamped, micromanaged and unable to do their jobs.

All of this has undermined the district’s credibility with Squamish residents, as have cost overruns at the new Squamish Adventure Centre – at least $2.5 million more than the original $1.9-million budget.

“If they screw up a deal that size, how are they going to pull off something worth half a billion dollars?” one resident asks.

Then there’s the cultural subtext, which comes up obliquely in conversations but more directly on Internet postings: do we really want 4,000 latte-drinking, condo-living Vancouver types taking over our backyard? Aside from repairing downtown infrastructure, Morris is uncertain about constructive solutions.

The economics of the time don’t make sense to him. High-wage union jobs and industries are being replaced by lower-wage positions in tourism and the service industry – the kind that make it almost impossible to afford a mortgage, even if both parents are working.

“I think in 2015 this will be a hard town to live in. How many B&Bs can we have? How many guys to take you out kayaking? Can we really be supported by a guy who comes into town one time, rides a bike, stays overnight, then goes home?” Morris isn’t worried about his own livelihood, but that of coming generations, who are being effectively forced out of their hometown. “Where are the younger people going to work? There are only so many computer jobs. I’ve got grandkids aged eight months to 15 years. What are they going to do?” Morris’s way of life is ending, and he knows it. Questions of corporate rapacity and the collusion of neo-liberal governments aside, talk with Old Guard residents of Squamish and behind the anger is a sense of loss, grief and nostalgia. The same emotions and uncertainty are hitting an entire generation of resource-economy workers in B.C.

“I work all over B.C. and the change that’s happening is unbelievable,” says Tim Lancaster, a planning consultant from Smart Growth Advisory Services who works with the Squamish district. “Of all the towns I’ve visited, I can only think of five or six that aren’t dealing with exactly the same economic problems as Squamish. People everywhere are reeling.”

Spiked real-estate values add to the pains of dwindling resource jobs, he says, with the price of homes in Interior towns such as Kaslo and Silverton – anything within a four-hour drive of Calgary – jumping from $75,000 to $400,000 in four years

. Data from real-estate research firm Landcor Data Corp. show that, between 2000 and 2006, the average sale price of single-family homes in Squamish jumped from $214,000 to $424,000. In the same period, townhouses – controversial in the district, evoking as they do an encroaching Whistler/Vancouver commuter-class lifestyle – more than doubled in value, from $140,000 to $323,000. Plenty of Squamish residents made a tidy profit on the real-estate boom, but there’s a definite downside to living between two of the most outrageously priced real-estate markets in Canada. Young families, those about the age of Morris’s children, have been priced out of the market. Bitter feelings about real-estate prices are generally aimed at a perceived invasion of SUV-driving yuppies from Whistler and West Van. But the influx is less significant than the Internet postings and pub rants would suggest. Of the 3,400 residential-property sales in the past six years, 2,900 were purchased by Squamish residents. Only 210 properties were purchased by people from Greater Vancouver and 120 by buyers from Whistler. Still, as Lancaster points out, this adds more stress to an already difficult economic transition. “There’s nothing you can do about markets like that,” says Lancaster. “The trick is to manage it by getting people together, talking and listening and sharing information.” “Squamish is a microcosm of all that’s good and bad about living in B.C.,” says Perry Beckham as we hike through a wet forest of fir and hemlock. “A lot of people here are stuck in the old paradigm. The Old Guard doesn’t really know what’s hitting them.” There’s been a long debate in Squamish, he says, about the merits of ecotourism versus outright extraction. “On the one side, you have reap and harvest, the old ‘just give ’er’ dominion mentality. On the other, you have more appreciation for natural areas as assets in themselves.”

The 49-year-old Beckham is a wiry, six-foot-two rock climber with shaggy black hair. He was a logger for 11 years, seven of them in Squamish. Instrumental in getting park designations for both the Chief and the Smoke Bluffs Municipal Park in Squamish, two of the country’s most popular climbing areas, he’s world renowned for his climbing skills and famous for making many first ascents on the Chief – including such finger-torturing routes as Northern Lights, Daily Planet and Cruel Shoes.

After running his own climbing-guide business in the 1980s and ’90s, he now puts his logger’s high-rigging skills to use as a special-effects and stunts rigger in films such as Medicine Man and Snakes on a Plane. He counts himself one of the luckiest men in the world, both for his career and where he lives: with his wife in a “refurbished hippy shack” across the highway from downtown. “A few of us with some foresight and a lot of good luck were able to recycle ourselves and our logging background into other work. Living here now, in this place, I honestly can’t think of any way I’d have it better.” Until recently, he says, the town suffered from a bad reputation, one that was, unfortunately, accurate.

“Squamish was the industrial armpit of Howe Sound. Air quality was a complete blight; with the smell of the mill, people couldn’t drive by fast enough. Woodfibre cast a real pall on the Sea to Sky corridor.” But now that the mill is gone, Squamish is about to take off, he says. If people think they’ve seen big changes in the town, they haven’t seen anything yet. “With the mill gone, people driving by say, ‘Wow, look at this place.’ These are people, that one-half of one per cent, who can spin the globe and live anywhere they want. I’ve been all over the world, and I know this is one of the most beautiful locations on earth. Come the Olympics, all these people with disposable income are going to drive by and say, ‘Why don’t I live here?’”

When we reach the top, a rocky clearing around the Mountain FM radio antenna, we get a wide panorama of the entire Squamish district, from the Chief’s cliff face on the south side of town to the new Quest University campus above the Garibaldi Highlands. In the foreground of the Tantalus Range, the Squamish River lilts down to its mouth at Howe Sound, the floodplain forming the downtown peninsula. The boosters are right about the stunning location.

“What we have are some decisions to make,” Beckham says. “Most developers aren’t looking long term. They’re going high density but low quality. We could end up looking like Port Coquitlam or Maple Ridge, an amorphous bunch of strata-title units. Or we could do something better.” [pagebreak] On the waterfront After selling BC Rail to CN in 2003, the provincial government offered the Nexen lands to the District of Squamish for $3. Nexen had recently completed a government-ordered $40-million remediation of the site, shipping out 1,700 rail cars of poisoned sludge for storage in Alberta.

The site would require monitoring, and, if the district would sign on to do it, the land was theirs. It was a clear consolation prize for lost rail-yard jobs, but Sutherland and council – with one notable protest vote by former mayor Corinne Lonsdale, whose council voting record recalls the line from the old Life cereal commercial: “He won’t eat it; he hates everything” – were not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. They jumped at the offer and created the Squamish Oceanfront Development Corporation to determine the best strategy for the waterfront property.

Last year the SODC brokered a joint-venture deal with the Vancouver-based Qualex-Landmark Group of Companies – Intrawest ULC, Concord Pacific Group Inc. and the Holborn Group were other contenders – to develop the Squamish waterfront into the kind of mixed-use core McRae, Prior and thousands of other residents had always hoped for.

At build-out, the capital cost of the project would have amounted to around $500 million, with predicted profits of $80 million for Squamish over 20 years, enough to deal with the current deficit and fill many gaps in local infrastructure. Potential amenities included a boardwalk, an oceanfront park and beach, an arts centre and a Squamish Nation interpretive centre, potentially transforming the downtown into a more spectacular version of Steveston or a mini-Granville Island. The past, however, came back to haunt the deal.

Qualex pulled out after a heated city council vote on the memorandum of understanding, in which three Old Guard councillors expressed grave doubts and one tore in half a piece of paper symbolizing the MOU. The vote passed, but the fractured city council convinced Qualex that the town wasn’t yet ready for the project. Six months of negotiations slid into the sea, along with a $500,000 Qualex investment in the planning process. Payback for the chip plant, said many residents.

Dave Fenn, owner of the Howe Sound BrewPub, shakes his head when asked why the deal collapsed. A former public-policy consultant in Victoria, he served on city council as part of a New Directions slate elected in 2002.

“In a city of 15,000, I could not envision a wider or deeper public consultation process than what we did on the waterfront. We had the Fraser Basin Council helping us, the UBC team on sustainability, Smart Growth on the Ground, all those teams doing public [consultations] over 18 months. I don’t think you can expect more. It was a bloody thorough process, and we were lucky to get it.” But mistrust and community division at that time were still more potent than information sessions, he says.

“We overestimated the trust people had in the SODC. There was a feeling that the SODC was a puppet of New Directions.” Initially, says Dave McRae, the SODC was a promising microcosm of Squamish. “When the board was formed, I looked at the list of people they had on it, and 25 to 30 per cent of them I didn’t agree with. But it was an extremely good cross-section of our community. Really, it was perfect, perfectly representative: it had the industrialists, the environmentalists, developers, the realtors, everyone, a very good broad spectrum.”

Though politics at the city council level ultimately foiled the Qualex deal brokered by the SODC, at least the combination of Old Guard and New Directions residents on the board was able to come together and do something constructive, says McRae. If a small group of residents can come to an agreement, there’s hope that the town and the city council can do the same. “The SODC went through a year of learning together, and, at the end of the day, they agreed, even the industrial Old Guard side, agreed to a common solution and brought it before council. That means something.”

The SODC lost several members after the Qualex deal fell apart, but the board has recently been refreshed with seven new faces. Included are some of the residents who vocally opposed the Qualex deal in the fateful city council meeting last October. This may give the board real political leverage in the community – if it can agree on a common strategy. That, of course, is a big “if.” It might simply stall things further. McRae doubts there will be any real progress on the waterfront until after the next election.

Ted Prior, still a member of the SODC board, is more optimistic. “New members will help bridge some of the different perspectives. Once they get their heads together, they’ll get things moving forward. All we need is a chance to alleviate all the mistruths that are out there.” Fenn also takes the long view. “We’re in the middle of it in Squamish, right at that point between the past and the future. Despite the difficulties in process, all the fundamentals are here – not for towers of rental units but for an exciting, dynamic community that can live, work and play off the water. If we just get a taste of waterfront development, once we see what that can do to change the face of downtown, the rest will roll out.”

When I wander back to the Chieftain around midnight on Friday, to my surprise, the place is crowded with 25- to 35-year-olds – a mix of snowboarders, climbers, baseball-cap-wearing construction types and Elaho River rave-party hippies with pink-dyed dreads. The music is thumping, the carnies are mingling and the juiced-up revellers are busy dancing and chatting each other up.

The party has definitely started. I find the DJ smoking inside the sidewalk entrance, talking with a friend. When I congratulate him on bringing in the crowd, he refuses to take the credit. “Nah man, sometimes it just happens,” he says. “You just have to hang out for it.”