Balancing outdoor enterprise and industrial grit in Squamish

A brilliant new business product is one that comes as a complete surprise but seems completely obvious once it’s in place. That’s why I rank the new Squamish Sea to Sky Gondola as one of the big breakthrough businesses of 2014 for our region.

The $22 million ride up into alpine wilderness between Shannon Falls and the Stawamus Chief has been so successful that many of the nine million-plus people driving the Sea to Sky Highway this year will have wondered why it took so long for someone to build it.

The gondola has beaten its projections for summer visitors and is about to test its first winter season, with a lineup of winter walks, snowshoeing, a tube park and backcountry skiing. It has boosted room nights in local hotels, helped increase retail sales in town, and overnight became one of the biggest employers in Squamish. It boasts 80 full-time and 50 seasonal employees.

Grouse Mountain sets the standard for a profitable mountaintop playground in Metro Vancouver, but the Sea to Sky Gondola is the next evolution. Using gondolas for widespread access to mountain terrain is nothing new – except here, until now. Zurich has 200 gondolas getting people into the mountains within 100 kilometres of the city.

This gondola doesn’t depend on skiers, snowboarders, real estate approvals and reliable snow. It simply provides a 12-minute lift over the biggest hurdle between city dwellers and tourists of all ages and agilities and our vast, spectacular, wild mountain terrain: the long haul up from sea level.

The entrepreneurs who spent seven years planning this venture – Sea to Sky Gondola general manager Trevor Dunn, Jayson Faulkner from Squamish and David Greenfield, Michael Hutchinson and David Smith from Whistler – have executed it with class and impeccable business savvy: offering great food, drinks, a sprawling deck with views in all directions, meeting rooms, changing rooms, a gift store, a small suspension bridge and accessible walking trails to nearby viewpoints.

The Sea to Sky Gondola is exactly aligned with Squamish’s branding as the outdoor recreation capital of Canada (think rock climbing, kiteboarding, mountain biking, hiking, cross-country skiing), helping it earn top spot in CNNMoney.com’s ranking of the best North American mountain towns to visit in summer.

But this booming new Squamish, shaking off its logging and milling past with an influx of young, recreationally minded new residents, can’t figure out how to match outdoor recreation with the proposed Woodfibre LNG plant at the old mill site across Howe Sound.

Newly elected Mayor Patricia Heintzman, who narrowly won on the strength of her opposition to the LNG plant, worries that Squamish’s widely accepted recreation-with-a-hint-of-high-tech identity might not survive a revival of heavy industry. A business startup incubator opened in March, and Pinkbike, which calls itself “the top mountain biking website in the world,” recently moved to Squamish. Heintzman remembers working with a tech startup 20 years ago that couldn’t attract workers because of Squamish’s mill-town ethos. She also can’t fathom Squamish being so aligned with a dead-end fossil fuel fracking future, a view challenged by other councillors who see LNG as cleaner than coal in our global airshed.

Woodfibre LNG is dangling upwards of $2 million in new municipal tax revenues, promises of clean electric power and 100 new jobs if the LNG plant is approved. Most of the workers will be from somewhere else (for now), but those tax revenues are at least 10 times higher than the municipality’s take from the Sea to Sky Gondola, and the LNG jobs will pay a lot more.

Can Squamish have it all – LNG, tankers, an ecologically healthy Howe Sound, and tourists and new resident entrepreneurs entranced by the pristine outdoors?

That’s the question for next year.

In some ways it’s the same question facing the entire province.

Peter Ladner (pladner@biv.com) is a co-founder of Business in Vancouver. He is a former Vancouver city councillor and former fellow at the SFU Centre for Dialogue. He is the author of The Urban Food Revolution.

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