British Columbia

As small towns in B.C. grow, so do fears over gentrification

As big changes come to small towns, many communities are looking to strike the right balance between preserving a town's character and personality, and managing social and economic growth.

Small towns 'are reaping both the rewards and the consequences' of change, says Cumberland resident

A person cycles by the tracks in Pemberton. The community saw a higher percentage of population growth than any other in B.C. with at least 1,000 people between 2016 and 2021. (Justin McElroy/CBC News)

On a rainy weekday in March, Ucluelet Brewing is a noisy, potent image of the town's renewal. 

A decade ago, the building was an abandoned church on the main strip, a periodic sight in a small logging and fishing community on the west coast of Vancouver Island that saw its population ebb and flow around 1,500 people for 30 years. 

But the church was bought and renovated. What were once empty pews are now packed barstools. Some of the people here for a pint and live music are tourists, but many are residents in a town that's seen its population increase by 25 per cent in the last decade.

"There's a good portion of the population that is really excited about the growth in town," said head brewer Allan Cukier, who moved to Ucluelet three years ago — his favourite vacation spot when he lived in Vancouver. 

"It comes with better food, more restaurants, more resources, more attention, more money. And then there are definitely the people that, you know … they're used to life being a certain way here."

'Tips things out of balance'

It's happening in places that have a mix of nature, cheaper housing, and just enough access to Victoria or Vancouver. 

A new report from the Community Development Institute at the University of Northern B.C. showed interprovincial migration from big urban centres to smaller communities has increased since 2015.

Affordable housing and an increased ability for people to work virtually are big factors. Towns that have diversified their economies — like Ucluelet — have been the beneficiaries. 

And as changes come to a small town — from the hip taco shop to the new microbrewery — so do everything else that come with those changes.

"We wanted people to see this was a special place. And so we are reaping both the rewards and the consequences of those actions," said Meaghan Cursons, a Cumberland resident and executive director of the Cumberland Community Forest Society. 

The organization raised money to purchase land surrounding the town in order to protect its forests and bike trails. Now Cumberland's reputation as a backcountry paradise is arguably one of the reasons the average home value increased from $360,000 in 2018 to $727,000 in 2022, according to B.C. Assessment.     

"I think that that's just the thing that happens to so many communities," said Cursons.

"They say, we're something, we're special, pay attention to us. And then sometimes that tips things out of balance." 

How bold should governments be? 

Cumberland Village Council is exploring the idea of regulating short-term rental properties, but local governments are often caught in the middle of trying to manage growth with limited resources. 

"You can't just build your way out of it, but you can't deny that pressure either. So it's a tug of war," said Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman. 

The town at the foot of Mt. Currie grew by 32 per cent from 2016 to 2021, more than any other B.C. community with at least 1,000 people between 2016 and 2021

Rows of townhomes are being built on the periphery of the town core, and Richman said the upcoming Official Community Plan review will inform Pemberton's strategy going forward. 

"How [will it] reflect on the character and the personality of our town and what drew so many of us here in the first place? How do you maintain that when things are growing at the rate that they have been growing?" he said. 

Mid Island-Pacific Rim MLA Josie Osborne represents both Cumberland and Ucluelet in the legislature, and was formerly Mayor of Tofino. She said there's both a physical and emotional facet to managing growth.

"First is the physical carrying capacity: how much water is there? How much wastewater can you manage, how many roads and parking spots and all of those kinds of things?" she said. 

"But then there's also the social carrying capacity. So how open as a town are you to having new people? How much capacity is there at the local school and jobs? And you kind of have to balance both things." 

A sign on the outskirts of Ucluelet displays some of the amenities in the coastal community. (Justin McElroy/CBC News)

But Cursons believes municipal governments have to move quickly and boldly when a population and property value boom is happening, lest a community be changed irrevocably. 

"Local government controls the decisions we make about how we use land," she said. 

"Land is fundamental to economic growth. Land is fundamental to reconciliation. Land is fundamental to climate change. So I think that local government needs to see the power and opportunity that they have and have the courage to respond accordingly."

It's a response many communities are looking to strike the right balance of — which is easier said than done. 

"I wish I had a prescription there to solve that problem for a lot of towns because it's a big issue in B.C. right now," said Andrew Finlay, a freelance journalist who has written many of the stories about Cumberland's rise. 

"I love the town. It's got great character. But, you know, I see it struggling to deal with this issue of just making it accessible to everybody."