It wasn’t all that long ago that Squamish was known mostly as that place with the funny-sounding name where you’d stop for gas while making your way along the scenic Sea to Sky Highway from downtown Vancouver to Whistler’s award-winning ski slopes.
However, thanks to a proactive municipal government and strong community participation, modern Squamish is no longer the sleepy logging town of the past. It has quickly evolved into a tourist destination in its own right, widely regarded as the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada and drawing thousands of visitors to discover its outdoor adventures every year.
“People didn’t know Squamish, except for the rock climbers,” said Vanessa Carrington, economic development officer for the District of Squamish (DOS). “It was just a stop on the way to Whistler. But now people choose Squamish as a destination.”
While travellers look at Squamish as a sweet vacation spot with incomparable recreation opportunities, others see the community as the ideal place to hang their hats for good.
“The quality of life is what is attracting people,” Carrington said. “People have the opportunity to live in other places like Ladner or Burnaby, but they are choosing Squamish because they want what we have… trails, recreation and a certain type of lifestyle.
“We’re known as a top destination for things like mountain biking, climbing and wind sports. And we’ve now got this incredible base of intelligent, professional people living here. But if you are just a bedroom community, it is hard economically on a community.”
That new, young and active demographic flocking to the area necessitated a hard look at Squamish local government’s plans and policies in order to fulfill the town’s growth potential.
“Ideally what we want is for people living in Squamish to work in Squamish,” she said. “So we are looking at our ‘employment lands’ (properties zoned and with infrastructure for industry and businesses) and trying to understand those lands and who we want to attract and proactively go after. We want to ensure we have enough and the right employment lands to support the community.
“We receive many inquiries from proponents and businesses wanting to relocate here, start a new enterprise or expand into Squamish,” she said. “One sector that has been moving into Squamish has been the ‘rec tech’ industry – like Pinkbike and 7Mesh — who are outdoor industry manufacturers. These businesses seem like a good fit because we have a younger, more active demographic than other communities. We do have an Official Community Plan (OCP) that supports a mix of industry and business, but it’s also good to proactively go after sectors that are aligned with our brand.”
And to make sure they know just exactly what that Squamish “brand” entails, district councillors launched a new initiative in 2014 that includes engaging marketing consultants and forming a brand leadership committee of local residents and entrepreneurs.
“Council sees economic development as a priority,” Carrington said, “so we need to know and clearly define who we are as a community and as a brand.”
Another unique aspect of the town’s identity is its well-earned reputation as “Hollywood North.” The town regularly hosts film crews for movies, television and commercials. The area has served as the location for blockbusters like the Twilight vampire trilogy, and it’s where The Rock meted out justice in the remake of Walking Tall. It’s also doubled for Alaska in Insomnia with Robin Williams, as well as in the Anne Heche TV series Men in Trees.
Squamish is such an attractive filming location, in fact, that the DOS had to create a position in 2013 just to manage the demand.
“They wanted someone who could provide a single point of access for location scouts,” said Devon Guest, film and event manager for the district. “It’s an effort to remove barriers and keep Squamish at the forefront of location managers’ minds. We want to be known as a film-friendly community, so we want to keep customer service at a forefront.”
Being “film-friendly” means making it easier for productions to be shot in the Sea to Sky, thereby contributing to the local economy.
“We encourage productions to spend locally,” Guest said. “They buy lumber at the local stores and spend catering dollars locally instead of going to Vancouver or elsewhere. We make it an attractive location.”
The DOS also wants to make Squamish an even more attractive location for everyone else and has initiated other community-building endeavours including a downtown core improvement project and the eventual development of its oceanfront properties into a commercial and residential hub.
“We’re no longer just a stop on the highway,” Carrington said.