British Columbia

Squamish, B.C., a magnet for newcomers, StatsCan report finds

The newest residents of Squamish, B.C., are full of energy and entrepreneurial spirit, but are creating demands the city finds challenging to meet, Mayor Patricia Heintzman said.

Mayor says community trying to adjust to influx of 'energetic' urbanites in latest growth spurt

Vancouverites are migrating en masse, and some are landing in Squamish, B.C., a new census report from Statistics Canada has found. (Nicole Gurney)

The newest residents of Squamish, B.C., are full of energy and entrepreneurial spirit, but are creating demands that the municipality — with a population of about 18,000 — is struggling to meet, says Mayor Patricia Heintzman.

Numbers in the Statistics Canada report, released earlier this week, divulge a distinct pattern: People are leaving Metro Vancouver in the thousands to settle in surrounding regions, with the Fraser Valley and the Okanagan as top destinations.

Squamish-Lillooet was lower on that list, with 274 new residents settling there from elsewhere in the province in the 12 months preceding July 1, 2017.

But given its compact size and mountainous borders — plus the addition of hundreds more newcomers migrating from other provinces and countries — Heintzman said those numbers amount to a significant challenge.

Infrastructure stressed by growth

Most of the intraprovincial pressure is coming from the big city to the south, Heintzman told On The Coast host Gloria Macarenko,

As part of Canada's fourth fastest growing census metropolitan area, Squamish is seeing more demand for housing and amenities than it has in years, and Heintzman says the influx has strained the city's resources.

More than 2,000 newcomers have made Squamish home since the 2011 census.

"Our occupancy rate within the rental stock is close to zero most of the last couple of years," Heintzman said. "It's created a big challenge on that front, in terms of the cost of living."

Paradoxically, Heintzman suspects the catalyst for the population boom is a desire to escape real estate prices in more urban areas.

A survey released Wednesday found Vancouver has no new condos for sale under the $500,000 mark.

"They're moving out I think predominantly because of housing affordability," Heintzman said. Consequentially, Squamish's real estate market has heated up.

"That's certainly pushed up our housing prices here," she said.

Transportation routes are also feeling the burden, Heintzman added, with parking lots and main arteries becoming increasingly crowded.

"The highway is at capacity on busy weekends. We need to figure out a way to get a lot of these cars off the road and provide alternatives."

There's only one road into town, and Heintzman says the Sea-to-Sky Highway needs the relief of a public transit route. (Twitter/@MacartneyTG)

The mayor said she and other city officials along the Sea to Sky route have asked the province to roll out its Transit Future Plan earlier than its 2019 goal.

But she expressed doubt that the province was communicating effectively with Metro Vancouver's TransLink system, which would play a vital role in making bus transportation between the two cities practical.

A seamless integration between Vancouver's existing infrastructure and the intercity route to Squamish is a priority for Heintzman. 

"The need is there now," she said. 

In a written statement, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said municipal decisions are still being made around governance, structure and funding new transit services and that "these local decisions need to be made before we can move forward with implementation."

The ministry says TransLink has been working with the province and, "When the proposed service is ready to move ahead, TransLink will continue to play an important role."

Identity in flux 

On a more abstract level, Heintzman said the community's changing demographics have residents grappling with their collective identity.

Heintzman said Squamish sees itself as a rural town connected to the natural areas that surround it, including the estuary, where kite-surfers and paddlers might glimpse one of the area's bald eagles. 

Squamish residents love their trails and wildlife, the city's mayor says, and some may resent development in the area. (Vanessa Isnardy/Squamish Environment Society)

Those attracted to bouldering, skiing, and hiking are drawn to the region's expansive wild playgrounds.

But the "fits and spurts" of growth in recent years has left city officials "cognizant of making sure we're not ruining what has made us who we are, and what we hold dear to ourselves," Heintzman said.

She hopes the province's future planning for Metro Vancouver takes into consideration the ripple effect on nearby areas.

"What happens in the Lower Mainland drastically affects the communities around it," she said.