ABOVE: An old newspaper clipping of the time when the sign was installed.
By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: June 27, 2017
The Copper Coil Grill in downtown Squamish sees its fair share of tourists but the owner, Les McDonald, is often surprised by many visitors who wonder aloud: “So, where is your downtown?”
The question will reverberate through the minds of many tourists as they make their way to Squamish, aided by smart phones and golden arches of our local McDonalds. For the millions making their way to Whistler, there will be nothing on the Highway 99 that would suggest they could shop and dine if only they steered left on Cleveland Ave.
It’s been six years since the Squamish Town Centre sign was knocked off by a car and the town has been waiting ever since for the sign to reappear. Committees and subcommittees have been formed, brands have been changed, and thousands of dollars of tax payer’s money has been spent on consultants—and still, we don’t have a sign.
The bureaucratic foot dragging can be frustrating for business owners like Les McDonald, who says a bland entrance doesn’t live up to the high expectations Squamish sets for tourists.
“We need something that really catches the eye and there is lots of places like Hope, Salmon Arm, and Stevenson that have clear signage which does a good job of welcoming people to the town. I don’t know why we don’t have a better signage yet. We have only one chance to make that impression when people enter our town and the entrance has to be what we want to say about ourselves,” he says.
Will we get a sign this year? May be. The district planned to issue a RFP to produce the first round of signs by late spring or early summer of 2016. Now, presumably wiser, the district has sent out a press release saying the signage and wayfinding program will roll out its first phase in the “near future.”
The signs are currently being manufactured, says district spokesperson, Christina Moore. The first phase will include two Squamish gateway signs at the north and south ends of town on Highway 99, two downtown signs (north and south, also on Highway 99) and a series of vehicular and pedestrian/cyclist signs in the downtown area out to the Adventure Centre and Brennan Park along Loggers Lane. Moore said the first phase will allow the district to test the wayfinding system and make any adjustments before rolling out future phases. The district plans to extend the phases over five years, and the first phase will cost $251,500 this year. The total budget over five years is $1,275,000.
The sign saga has been playing out for 13 years. In 2004, engineer Tom Barratt talked about the arches and a gateway to Squamish.
Realising that Squamish needed a better welcome sign than McDonalds, the then economic development officer, Lee Malleau, started working on the concept of a gateway to Squamish. “There was little or no indication to highway travellers that there was a downtown beyond the intersection,” Malleau said of her motivation to initiate the project. An urban design concept plan for the downtown gateway was reviewed in 2005, but never advanced. Instead, the province installed generic gray commercial centre highway signs through the Sea‐To‐Sky highway improvement project. Eight years after the initial plan was proposed, the ‘gateway’ was nowhere to be found. Yet again, in January 2011, the district started gauging the community sentiment regarding improvements to the downtown entrance. When asked which area required improvements to attract people into downtown, the intersection of Highway 99 and Cleveland Ave. was rated as the highest priority. The report was presented to the council, but further action was deferred because the multi-modal transportation plan had not been completed. The issue of the Squamish sign came to the forefront again that year when vandals struck off a ‘U’ from the sign. Some engaged citizens managed to put the ‘U’ back in Squamish, only to find out that someone had torn off the ‘S’ a few weeks later. In February 2012 a motor vehicle accident completely destroyed the freestanding “Squamish Town Centre”sign. Since then, the district created a Signage and Downtown Gateway Steering Committee but that didn’t lead the town anywhere for signage. Since then the signage has been on hold because the district embarked on an ambitious rebranding plan. The sign couldn’t be installed because the brand had to be consistent. In 2014, the district’s rebranding committee set a new deadline for the sign welcoming people to downtown Squamish: Spring of 2015.
“There is no excuse for having something in this interim. We have hundreds of thousands of people driving on the highway and I see this as a huge missed opportunity. It’s frustrating and very disappointing that we still haven’t been able to put up a sign.” Jeff Cooke
SORCA president Jeff Cooke volunteered his time on the district’s branding and marketing committee. He says the absence of a sign is a missed opportunity to attract more people to downtown Squamish and showcase what the town has to offer.
“There is no excuse for having something in this interim. We have hundreds of thousands of people driving on the highway and I see this as a huge missed opportunity. It’s frustrating and very disappointing that we still haven’t been able to put up a sign,” he says.
Cooke said he recalls there was a $15,000 insurance payout from the car that knocked off thesign, which he says could have been used to install a sign. “If this was a private business whose sign was knocked off, it would be back up in 24 hours. Anyone who relies on a sign to inform potential customers about their business would have it up quickly,” he says. But lack of signage isn’t just a downtown specific problem. Ask Graham Young, the owner of Canadian Outback rafting, which is situated in the Executive Suites hotel. While thousands of cars pass every year on the Highway 99, there is no signage on Garibaldi Way to suggest there may be a hotel or other tourist destinations in the area.
“One of the things we struggle with here is signage. No one knows we are here even as we try our best to get the word out. We need proper signage of all the attractions that are available,”he says. Hope, Chilliwack, and Golden have done a good job, he says, of making tourists aware of what is available in their communities on crucial exits. The strategically placed signsdo more than just provide information—they pull people seeking adventure off the highway and into the town. Businesses aren’t allowed signs unless approved by the province and this is where the district can play a proactive role, he says. “It’s about visibility and since we have so many people driving up the highway, why are we not highlighting what we have in for tourism adventure in Squamish?”
The new signs on the Highway 99 informing people about the Gondola do a good job of informing people about a tourist attraction coming up, but there is room for improvement when it comes to signage all over the town. In 2013, Marnie Lett, a former downtown business owner, prepared an extensive report and presented it to elected officials and the town’s CEO with her suggestions on signage, but it didn’t result in any action. Lett says Squamish already had a brand, a relevant and a genuine one that defined the town as the authentic adventure centre of the Sea to Sky.
“For those who do not know, the Sea to Sky term was even coined here in the 80’s, and certainly proved good enough for all the Corridor… all we have to do was sharpen the focus and leverage it,” she says.
She hopes the town will have a sign that will encourage visitors to the Squamish Adventure Centre. “Never once do we actually offer an image of the Centre, nor do we even name the actual Centre on a highway sign as our “visitor information Centre. And even worse remains the fact that there isn’t a single sign about our multi-million dollar tourism facility on the southbound drive! Tourists go back down the highway too,” she says. Mile markers on both the north and south of the highway are also needed, she adds.
“Where the battered and tired “Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada” is located, let highway travelers know that Squamish is 10 KM AHEAD. Same for the red sign on the southbound drive that is located about 18km to the north of town,” she says.
Scott McQuade, the owner of Squamish Hotel and now a realtor, was a member of the signage and downtown gateway task force committee. It was struck to advise the district on the need for “immediate signage needs including the replacement of town centre welcome signage and festival and event banner signage.”
McQuade says he is ambivalent about the whole issue. He would like to see a sign to welcome visitors to Squamish but says he understands why there still isn’t one and he has almost resigned himself to the fact that there may not even be one.
“If you asked me four years ago I would say that I was frustrated that nothing was done. Now that it’s been six years and I’m kind of ambivalent. I recognize the district is currently still undergoing their brand strategy and wants to get it right,” he says.