Squamish 2035: Which Future Will We Choose ?

Editor’s NOTE: Taken from the special print issue of the Squamish Reporter charting the town’s future, this article by Toby Foord-Kelcy presents his vision on Economy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Toby Foord-Kelcey
Published: Feb 6, 2015

 

Economy is a word with precise meaning in academic or business life, but vague in common use. “The production, distribution or trade, and consumption of limited goods and services” Wikipedia says.

In headlines, it is often distilled down to a number – GDP – or rate of change, like: “Canada grew 2.4% in the last quarter”.

But for most people it means ill-defined but tangible real life concerns: the level of house prices, the availability of employment and so on. When someone asks “how is the economy in ___?” they expect a qualitative answer, not a number. So what follows here is story telling not a spreadsheet. I am trying to convey how I think Squamish will feel as a place to live and work in 2035.

Squamish is an unusual town in that its geography and history make several possible but conflicting destinies quite plausible.  Thanks to ocean access, navigable by large ships, and transport corridors to the forests and other exploitable resources of the BC interior, the town was primarily shaped by heavy industry for many decades.

Though those businesses have almost entirely gone or shrunk, the possibility has to be considered that a revival of industry lies in the town’s future. Conversely Squamish is now also – thanks to the road upgrade last decade – within acceptable commuting distance of Vancouver, a large city with a fast growing affluent population. Squamish might just become another dormitory town for the big city’s workers. Clearly, to some extent, it already is.

 Then there’s the beguiling “hardwired for adventure” Squamish dream. In which the community sustains itself on new businesses like adventure tourism, “rec-tech” or innovation in education, that are directly or indirectly inspired by the unique landscape. In this vision, local employment thrives such that few need to commute anymore.  

At the time of writing, there is a palpable sense of optimism toward this vision. Partly this may stem from a fresh council with new leadership, but also the visible expansion or recent arrival of some signature businesses that fit the theme: Pink Bike, Anthill, Solterra’s new multi-use centre in the business park, Academy of Music, CMA, Quest, etc.

Squamish is of course not an island so we need to consider the outlook at the national and provincial level. Arguably, modern Canada just runs on two main engines. One is the export profits of the resource sector: forestry, mining and – recently and especially – hydrocarbons, which of course have primarily grown the economy in the west. Boom and bust cycles in this sector are long, often 10-20 years in duration, so for many people memories of bad times are very distant. However, a downturn has just begun which could cast a shadow for much of the next decade. And in BC there are specific reasons to think resource companies may be slow in re-committing capital when an upturn resumes – for example, last year’s confusing federal Supreme Court decision on land title.

The other major driver for Canada is its enlightened immigration policy, which sustains growth in major city populations and in turn fuels the interlinked businesses of construction and finance. Immigration policy has cross-party support so probably won’t change in the foreseeable future.  After thirty years of decline, mortgage rates must surely rise within the next twenty years, causing a housing bust or two, but the broad trend of continued urban expansion does not seem likely to be interrupted.

Finally, one other quirk of Squamish needs to be noted: its poor fiscal position. The legacy of the heavy industry years is a high municipal cost base that makes local residential and business tax very high by BC standards.  Solutions are politically tough or unpalatable so sadly this backdrop to Squamish life seems likely to be permanent.

Stirring these components together, which of Squamish’s possible futures will dominate in 2035? LNG or no LNG, Woodfibre is a logical location for export-orientated use, but otherwise, for the big picture reasons discussed above, heavy industry isn’t coming back. I do believe “hardwired for adventure” Squamish has momentum, but I think the wave will crest within 5-10 years. Three reasons. First, high local taxes will put off many new business start-ups. Second, a more confident and “fashionable” Squamish will bring an influx of more affluent residents, pushing up costs and further disadvantaging local business. And, in general, Vancouver’s continued growth will reinforce the “dormitory town” trend. 

So: picture a town more like Whistler but without the ski lifts. Expensive houses, even by BC standards. A busier 99, which you are likely to be using regularly as the number of local jobs won’t be much higher than today. (Pray for a passenger train by then, or that Google has mastered that driverless car thing.) Overall: a tough twenty years for many current residents to navigate successfully, but probably rewarding for those who manage it; at least financially. If all that sounds unappealing, sorry; don’t shoot the messenger! Most of us don’t like change, but it is smart to prepare for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Craig D. McConnell says:

    Mr. Foord-Kelsey presents a very balanced, agnostic view of the past, present, and future economic outcomes of Squamish. Similiar to most respected forecasters and analysts, he is not contrained by the dogma of a specific personal economic idealogy, but rather assesses the past and present empirically, at local, provincial, and national scales, and offers some conclusions for the economic future state.

    On assessing the two main engines of economic activity in Canada (resource industry export profits and enlightened foreign immigration policy), I am surprised he does not modify his observations to a broader model of ‘socio-economic activity’ at every scale. Regardless, he encourages the potential for economic diversification of Squamish through our unique geography (highway-railway-marine port transhipment point, adventure tourism, innovation center for new business and education-Quest U) to support the diverse community social infrastructure needs and current skewed residential tax base reliance.

    In conclusion, Mr Foord-Kelcey asks the readers to think globally, and act locally in assessing and planning for the economic future, regardless of how unappealing that decision making process for change has become.

    Craig D. McConnell

  2. Toby f-k says:

    Thanks for those positive comments, Craig. One point I should add is that Gagan’s title was his pick, as I failed to supply one. It is slightly misleading as I don’t actually think the fate of small towns, like Squamish, are decided to any significant extent by their residents over the long-run; there are larger-scale trends that dominate. It’s nicer to believe otherwise but the brief for this article was to try to make an objective forecast.