In Powell River, B.C., a small balcony at the Manzanita Restaurant overlooks what was once the city’s biggest employer, the Catalyst Paper mill. By 2010, the mill will have just 350 employees, a fraction of the 5,000 people it employed when it was the world’s largest paper mill. And instead of the pungent odours it once spewed, today it emits mainly steam, because the wastewater treatment system has been upgraded.
Inside the Manzanita, customers nosh on bison burgers, warm Brie, and fried local oysters with smoked paprika rémoulade. Eye-catching paintings—many for sale—line the brightly coloured walls. “There’s some incredible artist power [in the region],” says Karen Skadsheim, the restaurant’s service manager, who spent a decade working for a pulp and lumber trader before joining the Manzanita, which opened in 2007.
Like Skadsheim and the mill, Powell River has gone through a few changes recently. Once one of the most affluent communities in southwestern British Columbia, this city of 13,000 built a top-notch hospital and recreation centre on the strength of revenues from the mill. But for all its prosperity, it was still an undeniably smelly mill town—not the sort of place that figures prominently on most people’s vacation itineraries. It didn’t even have a tourist bureau society until 1993, when the visitor centre saw a mere 3,500 travellers.
In 2000, forest-related industries still accounted for 27 per cent of the city’s economy, while tourism registered just five per cent. But as the mill shed jobs, Powell River saw home prices tumble; you could pick up just about any house in town for $80,000, Skadsheim recalls. When laid-off mill workers sold up and moved on, retirees and urban folks from the increasingly expensive Lower Mainland of British Columbia moved in, snapping up waterfront properties, reviving housing values and changing the demographics.
In the wake of new residents came tourists. By 2004, the visitor centre was welcoming 35,000 travellers a year—10 times the number that had come through the doors just over a decade earlier. These days, there are some 200 tourism-related businesses in Powell River. Attractions such as the Symphony and Opera Academy of the Pacific (founded in 2003) and the 180-kilometre Sunshine Coast Trail draw visitors from the Lower Mainland and beyond. Tourism is not yet the economic engine that the mill once was, but its importance is growing.
Today, Powell River is just one of the more striking examples of a transformation taking place up and down the Sunshine Coast, on the mainland northwest of Vancouver. Traditionally, the Sunshine Coast meant the region meandering from the Langdale ferry terminal through Gibsons, Roberts Creek, Sechelt, Halfmoon Bay and Pender Harbour/Madeira Park to the ferry terminal at Earls Cove. Lately, however, the nickname’s territory has been extended northwest past Saltery Bay and Powell River to Lund, 166 kilometres from Vancouver at the end of Highway 101.
In some of these communities, resource-based industries such as logging and mining are still major employers. The busy Construction Aggregates mine in Sechelt, for instance, produces gravel, crushed stone and sand for sites as diverse as suburban Vancouver subdivisions and San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, and a controversial proposal by Pan Pacific Aggregates to build a second, similar operation would bring roughly 100 new jobs. But the lower Sunshine Coast has felt the bite of a struggling pulp and paper industry. Howe Sound Pulp and Paper in Port Mellon laid off 101 workers in March, citing decreasing worldwide demand for newsprint.
Sechelt is an even more popular destination for tourists and retirees than Powell River. The District of Sechelt, with a population of just over 9,000, is home to dozens of bed and breakfasts, and one in four Sechelt residents is 65 or older. “It’s essentially now, in many ways, a retirement community,” says Sean Eckford who works in the news department of Sechelt radio station The Coast (CKAY-FM).
Like many people, Eckford’s concerned that the region’s evolution may make it harder for locals to stay in the towns where they grew up. Not only are well-paying resource jobs giving way to comparatively poorer paying jobs in service industries, but rising housing prices and property taxes are also making it harder for people to get a toehold in the real estate market, even during the recession. “We need the young people,” Eckford says, noting that businesses can’t thrive if entry-level workers can’t afford nearby homes. He points to Whistler, B.C.’s famous ski resort, as a cautionary tale. “The hardest thing for anyone who works at Whistler to do is live in Whistler.”
The Sunshine Coast is the second fastest-growing region in B.C.; the population jumped 8.4 per cent between 2001 and 2006. Newcomers are drawn by the temperate weather, proximity to Vancouver, and jaw-dropping views of mountains, inlets and beaches. But, not surprisingly, there have been growing pains. Take the town of Gibsons. Almost every Canadian over the age of 20 has at least glimpsed Gibsons, where the CBC series The Beachcombers was shot from 1972 to 1990. (Yes, the Molly’s Reach café still stands.)
Picture framer and tour guide Cindy Buis of Artworks Tours arrived here 25 years ago for a holiday. Charmed by the scenery and small-town vibe, she quickly decided to pull up stakes and move to the picturesque community, where then-low commercial real estate prices allowed her to set up the town’s first picture-framing store. But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. “When I first moved here, our town needed a lot of TLC,” she says, remembering weedy, potholed streets. “It was a resource town that was limping along.”
A growing tax base has permitted improvements, such as a waterfront boardwalk and visitor-friendly festivals. But some changes—like a proposed five-storey condo complex called Shoal Bay—have provoked protests from locals worried that the small-town feel they treasure could be lost if development proceeds too quickly. “Five storeys on the waterfront starts to inhibit views,” Buis points out.
Despite its proximity to Vancouver, the Sunshine Coast has been slow to jump on the tourism bandwagon. Granted, there have long been some visitors. In fact, the name Sunshine Coast evolved from an earlier nickname, Sunshine Belt, which Harry Roberts coined in the early 1900s to entice steamboat passengers to stay in his holiday cabins in Roberts Creek. But until regular ferry service was instituted in the early 1950s and Highway 101 was completed in 1962, much of the region was beyond the tourist radar.
The tourism infrastructure that did exist was often modest, along the lines of campgrounds and fishing lodges. But the continent-wide demand for waterfront property eventually touched the Sunshine Coast. That, combined with the decline in fish stocks that made the region less attractive to anglers, meant that the days of the laid-back fishing lodge were numbered.
About 20 kilometres from Sechelt, Lord Jim’s Resort Hotel in Halfmoon Bay once attracted a mainly local clientele, who came for a relaxing weekend in modest lodge rooms or rustic cabins. In 2004, developer Peter Rubin bought the property and redeveloped it as the more upscale Rockwater Secret Cove Resort.
Rockwater president Kevin Toth points out that declining fish stocks meant charters were no longer practical. As well as sprucing up the cabins and rooms, the new owners built luxurious “tenthouse suites”—eco-friendly canvas-walled units with heated slate floors, hot tubs and expansive decks overlooking the cove. Prices went up accordingly, although you can still get a three-bedroom cabin for $149 a night. (The tenthouse suites start at $219.)
A similar story is unfolding further up the coast, in scenic Pender Harbour. There, another formerly low-key resort is in the process of becoming the Painted Boat Resort, with fractional-ownership condos, a chic restaurant and a spa. The developers hope the restaurant and spa will also attract the owners of other nearby vacation properties. And there is no shortage of those.
In the past few years, large holiday homes have sprouted like mushrooms around the pretty Pender Harbour waterfront, although many are empty for much of the year. “The bigger the house, the less it gets used,” wryly observes Andy Cardiff, owner of Malaspina Water Taxi in Pender Harbour.
Like Buis, Cardiff made a spur-of-the-moment decision to move to the Sunshine Coast after spotting a boat for sale. An environmental geographer, he was working as a landfill designer when he came to the area on vacation and was immediately struck by the other-worldliness of the place. “It was just completely silent,” he recalls. “It’s very peaceful. You know everybody in the town.”
The boom in vacation homes has been a mixed blessing for the adjacent communities of Madeira Park and Pender Harbour. On the one hand, Cardiff notes, newcomers bring energy, money and ideas. But, as in Sechelt, rising property values pose problems for small businesses. “It’s too expensive for the little guy—the grocery stores, the coffee shops, the gas station. They have a hard time finding employees, because they can’t afford to stay here,” Cardiff adds.
In addition, vacation home owners often bring everything from building supplies to groceries with them from Vancouver, Cardiff says, so the building boom hasn’t always meant more income for local businesses. In fact, even most tourist-oriented businesses have to work hard to remain viable outside of the hectic summer months.
On the upper Sunshine Coast in Powell River, chef David Bowes co-owns the Laughing Oyster restaurant, where dishes include mussels with jalapeno and oyster-topped filet mignon. Bowes, born in Powell River, echoes others’ love for the region. “It’s kind of like time has stood still here, a little bit. Kids can virtually still run free.”
However, it can be a challenge to make a life in a temperate coastal paradise where mountainous terrain and inlets have made inland roads unfeasible. While not an island, “Powell River is like an island,” explains Bowes. “You can only get in by air or by boat. So you have to be a bit of a genius in your marketing,” he says. For Bowes, that entails everything from running steak and seafood buffets every Wednesday night to operating a catering service for weddings and parties. A talented musician, he’s even known to come out from the kitchen to entertain diners with a few classic rock and country tunes on his guitar.
One tactic that has proven successful for a number of tourism businesses is to reach out to markets beyond the Lower Mainland and the Pacific Northwest. Germans, in particular, are huge fans of the Sunshine Coast. “Our German visitors love to come here for the wilderness,” says Jean Billingsley who runs the Sechelt Inlet B&B with her husband Dick. While visitors from the Lower Mainland make up about two-thirds of her guests, by late spring of 2009 she already had 25 bookings from German visitors for the upcoming summer.
On the other end of the Sunshine Coast at the Sevilla Island Resort, a four-suite eco-tourism property just off Lund, co-owner Ian Hobbs says Germans and other Europeans are an important part of his business. “They book early and they book long,” says Hobbs, explaining that North Americans are more likely to book last-minute, shorter getaways because they don’t have as much vacation time. “The Europeans [are] a lot less sensitive to price,” he believes. He and his wife Donna Kaye picked this spot to build their 3,500-square-foot resort because it offered easy access to pristine areas where guests can snorkel, kayak, hike and cycle.
Across a narrow channel from Sevilla Island, in the village of Lund, the Lund Hotel has been in the accommodation business since 1905. It catered mainly to loggers and fishermen in what was, until quite recently, a fairly isolated outpost.
When new owners bought it in 2000, it had been closed for two years and needed major repairs. “It was definitely not a resort or a destination property,” says the hotel’s sales and marketing manager, Leah Nyhus. The new owners poured money into it, renovating the restaurant, upgrading the guest rooms and buying a 58-foot power catamaran that now offers dinner cruises. But although the hotel has been significantly renovated, it still caters to a wide range of locals and boaters, offering everything from a post office and a general store to an ATM and a coin laundry.
Nyhus says the upper Sunshine Coast still has a way to go in terms of tourism. “Marina infrastructure is something that the area really lacks,” she says. She’d like to see more facilities built to attract the sailing traffic that now heads to Nanaimo and Comox, across the Strait of Georgia on Vancouver Island.
Tourism entrepreneurs closer to Vancouver also have wish lists. “We’re in need of convention space on the lower Sunshine Coast,” explains Rockwater’s Toth. He argues that could help keep tourist businesses active in the off season, when the hikers and paddlers have packed up and gone home.
It’s a bittersweet thing to see any coastline change. As people in beautiful locales the world over know all too well, some development is both desirable and inevitable; after all, you can’t eat scenery. If businesses and residents in this gorgeous corner of Canada can balance their competing interests—accommodating tourists, keeping the region affordable for residents and preserving the community spirit that draws people here in the first place—they’ll dodge the blight that has descended on seafronts from Hawaii to the Costa del Sol. If they do it, they’ll provide a model for others to follow.
Although the Sunshine Coast has come late to the tourism party, it may yet become the belle of the ball in a transitional dance that—according to some—is stepping from “fishes and lumber” to “dishes and slumber.”
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