Before the Gondola, Quest, and the Adventure Centre existed; before the entrepreneurial spirit pervaded; before rec-tech was a thing; and before people really wanted to move here, Squamish was a one-horse town.
At the turn of the millennium, Squamish was full of raw beauty and character, but it was gritty and was largely unrecognized as a place to visit, let alone live. Its natural jewels remained for the enjoyment of the 14,000-some residents. The world didn’t yet grasp what could be. At the time, forestry was the economic mainstay and though changes were underfoot, they were nothing compared with the economic transition Squamish is currently in the midst of.
To say that Squamish is changing is trite; we all know it’s changing. The questions now are: Where are we heading? And what will become?
The tale of the one-industry town is antiquated like the cables and rusted out logging equipment speckled in the woods–relics from an era gone by. The closure of Interfor Downtown Sawmill in 2004 and the Woodfibre Pulp Mill in 2006 marked the end of an era. While logging still exists in Squamish’s new economy, it’s now overshadowed by the host of new enterprises opening shop.
The announcement of the 2010 Vancouver-Whistler Olympics brought the first rush of new residents to town, anticipating that this would be the linchpin of changes to come. Although the Olympics did set the wheels in motion, the expected boom was dampened by the 2007/2008 subprime mortgage scandal in the US and accompanying economic downturn. Red hot pre-Olympic real estate turned ice cold shortly after the games. A handful of development projects went bankrupt or were cancelled, and are only now seeing realization, almost ten years later. Graffiti laden, boarded up showrooms stood as placeholders in the interim.
The Squamish boom wasn’t abandoned–just delayed. And now it’s here in full force. Squamish is trendy; it’s a hip place to be and the business climate is markedly different too.
The Seeds of Change
Access to town improved dramatically with the highway upgrades that accompanied the Olympics. Large sections were straightened and much of the road was widened to four lanes.
Gary Buxton is the General Manager for the District of Squamish. He says that “Lower Mainland residents have realized you can commute from here and that’s probably in the last five years. It’s rapidly accelerated in the last three or four.”
“It’s typical that you get your residential arrivals, then the businesses follow when they realize the market has shifted.” As businesses realize that some of their customer base has relocated to Squamish, existing enterprises will be inclined either move themselves or open a subsidiary here, says Buxton.
Before coming to Squamish, Buxton worked in the planning department for Canmore, Alberta. The two towns share many similarities. Both were industry-driven backwaters, existing in the shadow of their flashy neighbours up the road, Banff and Whistler. They are now both mountain towns with young, recreationally-oriented residents. Buxton sees the draw for the entrepreneurially-minded in these settings,“Entrepreneurs look for great places to live and Squamish is a great place to live.”
The Flourishing Entrepreneurial Spirit
“Before, as we all know, Squamish was the place that most people would only drive by on their way up to Whistler. And most people today still don’t know that there is a Downtown Squamish or that there is a university on top of the hill,” says Mario Gomes, an entrepreneur who has established several businesses in town.
Gomes jumped into the rising economic tide in 2010 when he moved from Vancouver. He and his partner, like many of Squamish’s residents, wanted to find a nice place to raise their children. They were previously residing in glass towers of Yaletown, Vancouver, and spending a lot of time traveling for work. Gomes was seeking something that would keep him closer to home. “When we moved to Squamish, the question became, how can we do something local?”
“I thought the market would eventually change. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that in Squamish it was just a matter of time before it became a place that more people wanted to live.” So, he went into real estate development and created the Valkyries and Parkhouse Condo developments— whose record-breaking sellouts made everyone take notice.
Gomes also saw the need for more family attractions. “Within six months of living here and our first kid, we realized that you have all these options of things you can do outdoors, but it’s a very do-it-yourself kind of community. You don’t have too many things as a whole family.” Hence, the creation of Kristall Turm. The aerial ropes course attraction already existed in Germany and Gomes founded the North American arm. There are now five towers in North America, with two more on the way and potentially one in Squamish. Initially, the majority of materials were imported from Germany, but now 80 percent of manufacturing is done here in town.
“At the time, which was only five years ago, there was much less by way of attractions than there is now because the city is changing so fast. Now you have an indoor climbing gym and a trampoline park and things that are popping up every day,” says Gomes.
Starting Up In Squamish
The enjoyable environment, proximity to Vancouver, growing population, and shift from a resource economy make Squamish an appealing place to start a new company. Gomes points to having the right factors in place for a new company to start. He draws on the analogy of cooking. “It’s almost like you are making some dish and you need the right ingredients. And if you have them and you throw them together, it usually turns into something good. I think this is Squamish right now,” says Gomes. He points to the entrepreneurial and artistic talents, the prominent educational institutions and presence of a few larger businesses.
“I think when you put all these ingredients together, you are bound to have innovations and you are bound to have interesting business coming up,” says Gomes. He posits that light manufacturing and rec-tech—companies like 7Mesh or Kristall Turm–will play an increasingly substantial role in Squamish’s evolving economy.
“It’s kind of like Santa Cruz, right? They made a name for themselves by having bikes they develop and produce right there. Squamish feels like it’s going towards that direction as well.”
The District is Getting Behind it
Natalie Scopaz is Squamish’s Economic Development Coordinator. She has worked in the planning department at the District for seven years. She explains that a lot of her work is understanding the existing economic vectors and then seeing how the council and district can continue to support what already has a tendency to thrive. “A lot of what’s happening is a natural progression. You can see a natural inclination towards the outdoors,” observes Natalie. She says the influx of businesses in this space really just follows the course.
Companies were already testing their products here years ago and so the movement was really organic,” says Scopaz. “Another community presence is carbon engineering on the Oceanfront Lands. The District is really committed to attracting that sector and are supportive of seeing it grow.”
“The council that we have right now and even previous councils have really made a commitment to cutting down barriers to business,” say Scopaz. She explains that all departments in the district have been working to make their operations more business friendly—from changing zoning and business licensing to getting market research done.
Navigating the bureaucratic process of licensing and zoning has proven to be a rather lengthy and difficult endeavour for many new businesses in town. When the growth rate of a community jumps, as it has with Squamish, it can be challenging for the administration to keep up.
“Bringing dollars to really focus on businesses,” is a significant step forward, says Scopaz.
The Economic Development Department itself is a relatively new entity within the District. The department was lumped in with planning until 2010, but is now coming into its own and providing oversight on how to steer policy and action. The recently created Economic Development Strategy and Action Plan is a comprehensive document for how the region’s economy will unfold over the next decade. The plan outlines six sectors to which the district will continue to focus its energies: light manufacturing, technology and clean energy, shipping and marine industry, forestry, retail and commercial, and tourism and recreation.
“The genesis of the plan came about last year and is a consolidation of work done in the last five years,” notes Buxton.
“I oversee the planning and engineering department and it’s a bit of struggle some days to keep on top of managing the change in the community. The challenge is trying to keep the machine running at the pace business wants it to run at,” he says.
“Council has been good in terms of supporting the economic development function. They’ve thrown a lot of money at supporting development in the last year and a half,” Buxton says. Council has hired two new planners and three new engineers in the planning department to keep on top of the applications–the volume of which is on the rise.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
As with any kind of growth, there are awkward parts. And things don’t always unfold as they’re intended to in the plan. One readily apparent concern at this point is the sheer pace of growth.
“Growing a city is just like running a company; you could die of too much success,” says Gomes. “I don’t necessarily think that will happen with Squamish, but there are some things that are way harder to plan.” He says that when growth is rapid, it can easily outpace the plan within a few months.
It’s a valid concern says Gomes, “But it’s also fear. Most people, I think, are not naturally embracing change because change comes with the unknown and fear. We are creatures that like a certain routine and like a level of certainty in our lives. But then when you have too much certainly, you get bored and start looking for something new to do.”
“It’s a bit of a paradox,” says Gomes, “because when the ground starts to move under your feet, you run back and try and get certainty again.”
The Squamish boom is now well underway. It ranked 15th in an assessment of Canada’s top places to do business for 2016. The economy here has undergone remarkable changes since the turn of the millennium when forestry was the mainstay. The Olympic Games spurred on growth and despite the hiccup of the 2008 economic downturn, Squamish is a very compelling place to live and to do business. While pinning down destiny is never a sure thing, it looks like the trajectory is set for the foreseeable future–a path of growth and developing industries in the knowledge and technology economies.