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Opinion: Back to the Squamish future

'Time will tell if this blossoming commercial landscape, two decades in the making, can replace the robust business tax base and high-paying jobs of bygone days.'

Spring has sprung and there is no better time to review the progress of the growing inventory of commercial ventures sprouting from one end of town to the other.

For the past 20 years, successive municipal administrations have worked energetically to facilitate the shift away from a fallow industrial and natural resources-dependent economy to a more fertile business platform. 
That transition was accelerated when plans for a major development on the Squamish oceanfront were activated by the District of Squamish in 2004.

The chosen location was a 100-acre site originally owned by BC Rail and leased to Nexen Inc., a Calgary-based firm whose chloralkali facility on the property manufactured bleaching agents for the pulp-and-paper industry.

During peak output, 90 employees worked at the plant, but in 1991 it was mothballed.

Twelve years later the provincial government sold BC Rail to the Canadian National Railway Co. and 80 maintenance workers at the Squamish rail yard subsequently lost their jobs.

In 2004, 117 workers were shown the door when the Interfor sawmill in Squamish was shuttered.

On the west side of upper Howe Sound, the Woodfibre pulp mill owned by Western Forest Products had been in operation since 1912.

But in 2006, production was unceremoniously terminated. Millions of potential municipal tax dollars and 323 jobs vanished into thin air.                                                                                                                         

Those abrupt closures led to an over-reliance on residential taxes and considerable hand-wringing by District of Squamish officials. Subsequently, the blueprint for a more diverse commercial future gained traction based on tourism, light manufacturing, the knowledge industry, and high tech.                                                                                                                       

After selling BC Rail to Canadian National Railways in 2003, the provincial government offered the Nexen lands to the District for the nominal sum of $3. Once the municipality took ownership, the Oceanfront Development Corporation was launched with a mandate to transform the site into a multifaceted residential and commercial centre.                                                     

In 2016, the property was sold to Newport Beach Developments Limited Partnership and rebranded as Oceanfront Squamish, “a master-planned community that’s grounded in history and built with an eye towards the future.”

Key features will be walkable, diverse neighbourhoods, cutting-edge industries, 2,300 jobs at build-out, and world-class environmental stewardship, according to the developer’s marketing materials.

Carbon Engineering, an innovative direct air capture facility, has already established a plant and head office at that location.

In addition, Capilano University has secured two acres at the site for what will become a “purpose-built hub for higher education.” Over at the former Woodfibre pulp and paper mill property, the proponents of the controversial Woodfibre LNG project plan to start construction next year with an anticipated completion date sometime in 2027.                                                                                                                    
According to District of Squamish sources, 781 businesses in the green transition economy employing 1,684 workers have put down roots locally.

A major contributor to that sector is Quantum Technology, a global leader in specialized industrial gas applications.

Another green-team affiliate is Nexii Building Solutions, an avant-garde construction technology firm, located in the Squamish Industrial Park. The plant also houses Nexii’s Research and Development division.

Meanwhile, the promoters of the protracted Garibaldi at Squamish four-season resort slated for Brohm Ridge are finalizing their Master Plan and are engaged in ongoing work related to the Environmental Assessment Certification conditions. Shovels in the ground are projected for 2024, with an opening date slated for the fall of 2027.

One of the earliest examples of the revamped Squamish economy was Quest University Canada. Since its inception in 2003, it has gone through growing pains, including a revolving door of leadership and serious fiscal challenges. Two years ago, Quest’s buildings and lands were transferred to Primacorp Ventures Inc., which bills itself as Canada’s largest independent provider of post-secondary education.

Meanwhile, the Sea to Sky Gondola, now in its eighth year of operation, has put an indelible tourist destination stamp on Squamish and continues to be a major employer in town.                    

So, what does it all mean going forward? For better or worse, during much of the past century, the Squamish industrial sector exhibited many of the unmistakable characteristics of a typical branch plant economy. Strategic operating decisions were regularly made behind closed doors at distant head offices in accordance with shareholder and corporate agendas far removed from the upper reaches of Howe Sound.

In the end, that remote relationship did not bode well for this community.                                                                                              

With some obvious exceptions, the new marketplace is buttressed by numerous homegrown businesses attuned to local priorities. Time will tell if this blossoming commercial landscape, two decades in the making, can replace the robust business tax base and high-paying jobs of bygone days.  

Helmut Manzl is a political columnist and long-time Squamish resident.


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