Driving the Sunshine Coast highway this time of the year is becoming an interesting indicator of Vancouver and Alberta flight.Counting ‘for sale’ signs with ‘sold’ stickers is certainly compulsive behaviour (29 were tallied last Sunday), but it’s also an indicator of change, availability and promise.
As someone who now lives close to Powell River, I often drive the entire highway to Vancouver, including the two ferry links, as I wind down my Vancouver and Calgary work and volunteer obligations. And as I drive, I see more and more evidence of family decisions to move up-coast away from the Big Smoke.
Right now, I am seeing a fair number of Alberta plates on the coastal highway, many on the back of big new pickups. There are also a number of new horse acreages being cleared and developed with fencing, grooming, and decorating. By decorating, I mean fancy outbuildings, welded fences with painted nameplates and horse sculptures.
These new places are more ranches than coast homes, and betray a little prairie spirit in the rain forest. One of the grandest isn’t even on the ocean side – it sits well back of a newly cleared meadow. As a transplanted Albertan myself, I kind of get this esthetic: sort of ‘field and fountain, moor and mountain’ over beaches.
On the ocean front, starting at Sechelt and winding up the highway, there are lots of recently sold lots of raw land. Big old homesteads are being subdivided and serviced prior to sale. Many have wells drilled, entrances paved and power strung to building sites. A new wave of coastal immigration is underway as Vancouverite Boomers cash in their west-side bungalows and head for small town life.
These people seem to want big homes to retire to – there is no overwhelming evidence that Vancouver’s condo-mania has country retirement appeal. Hand in hand with big homes goes a big need for yard work, painting, window and gutter cleaning, chimney cleaning, and all the other maintenance chores of suburban life.
All of these new folks bring fresh amounts of volunteer energy, too. A local board that I sit on, PRISMA (Pacific Region International Summer Music Academy) in Powell River is a classic example of local and newcomer integration. A shared love of symphonic music brings everyone to the table, and the mix of a strong understanding of local strengths (and realities), nicely dovetails with newcomer energy and a willingness to pitch in.
An eclectic mix of Millennial and Gen X staff blends well with a mostly Boomer board. Arthur Arnold, the maestro of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, sits on this board. He is also the music director of PRISMA, an annual two-week academy in June that trains 75 to 80 young musicians from around the world in symphony performance. It also provides the communities of the Sunshine Coast and the Comox-Courtney area of Vancouver Island with two weeks of magnificent summer concerts and festival activities.
New businesses are springing up in Gibsons, Sechelt and Powell River as previous urbanites start craft beer companies, farm-based grocery and butcher stores, serious coffee shops, magical chain-saw sculpture galleries, retail art co-operatives, small gourmet restaurants, locally made clothing boutiques, wooden furniture workshops, and a broad range of professional services.
Hereabouts you are more likely to meet your accountant, lawyer and doctor at the wharf than at their offices.
Old businesses are experiencing growth too, as previous summer clients become year-round customers. My trusted boat mechanic Jeff Munro of Valley Marine in Powell River, makes boat calls, trouble-shoots on the phone with great success, and calls me by name as we pass on the street. When did that ever happen in 30 years of Calgary life? It didn’t.
When you roll all of these up-coast attributes together, throw in better weather and swimming from May to early October, it is hard to see the Vancouver or Calgary advantage. The former city has the most expensive real estate in Canada, and the latter is dealing with an oil price crash of epic proportions. No wonder the ‘sold’ stickers are so prolific this year.
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.