Cautious optimism about gondola in Squamish
The Sea to Sky Gondola is a proposed gondola that will go up between Shannon Falls and Stawamus Chief (known as The Chief) Provincial Parks. The project dismays hikers, and pits a small group of vocal opponents in the community against the enthusiastic support of many residents, business owners, the Squamish Nation and city councillors.
On a gorgeous Sunday on and around The Chief in Squamish, British Columbia, the Vancouver Observer found more people for the city's proposed gondola project than against it.
The lure of attracting up to 400,000 visitors annually and building the economy of the struggling town has convinced many it's a good idea. One thing everyone can agree upon is that the city is set in one of the most gorgeous areas between Vancouver and Whistler.
What appeals to many of the people the Vancouver Observer talked with is that the gondola could transform Squamish from somewhere people breeze past on their way to one of North America's primo ski areas to a popular destination in its own right.
Cautious optimism about the gondola in Squamish
"I haven't read up on it as much as I should," co-owner Cara Barth said.
She added, however, that the gondola would bring more people "up the highway," and said her business would benefit from this.
"I can't think of what the other effect it would have on other businesses other than the Whistler gondola. It comes down simply to environmental things."
When pressed to elaborate, she said it depends on how the gondola is built.
"If it's not nice or not done properly, or not pulling in the money that makes it worth to take that hit, maybe it's not worth it," she said.
Sitting at the coffee shop charging his smart phone was 24 year old Paul Brennan, a mountain climber who frequents The Chief and said he relishes the climb. Brennan admitted that he didn't know much about the gondola— including where it would go—but was generally against the idea of a gondola near The Chief.
"It just seems strange to put a gondola in a place that takes only an hour to walk," said Brennan, who is originally from Ireland but has lived in Canada for the last seven months.
"The same has happened in some of the mountains in Scotland, people have put in gondolas and ski lifts and a lot of the local community are against it. What's the point of imposing something on the natural environment?"
Gondola a hot topic of conversation at First Peak
A sign at the path leading to The Chief reads, "This is not a walk in the park!"
An hour and a half of intense, almost vertical climbing later, hikers are rewarded with a dazzling view of Howe Sound, Squamish, Brackendale and beyond at the First Peak.
Three women who drove in from Vancouver and hiked up together lounged on the First Peak, cooling off. When asked their opinions on the gondola, all three immediately chimed in with their disapproval, based on their limited knowledge of the project.
"It'd be overcrowded and commercialized," said Hannah Foy, 36. "Why would you go where everyone is? It's a decent hike that's not too treacherous and it's a beautiful view and it's not too far of a drive."
"You can go to Grouse or Whistler if you want to be on a gondola, not everything has to be commercialized," said her friend, Kim Christensen, 30. "You don't want to go where there's thousands of other people."
"Then you have to pay $20 to park," Christa Howe, 34, added.
Meanwhile, Aaron and Jason Foote, two brothers in their forties who grew up in Squamish, disagreed.
"Anything that generates business in town is helpful, stimulates the economy and otherwise you don't want the town to die and everyone to get laid off," said Aaron Foote, 40. Foote, a firefighter who has lived his whole life in Squamish, added that there's a lot of economic development opportunities that don't go ahead for reasons he can't fathom.
"There's been a lot of great ideas that kind of flounder in this town. The university is just wavering. They've got the highest enrollment rates they've ever had, but I don't see it as a money maker."
"Restaurants in town seem to struggle, turn over all the time. I don't know what it is," Jason Foote, 42, said. "I know they've got Grouse Mountain, Cypress and all that, but it'd be another jewel on the crown."
Foote, who was visiting his brother Aaron for the weekend, said that he still has a "vested interest" in the town's development.
"We've got all these assets that no one can access. Get them up in a hurry, get back down. It's great for climbers and for handicapped people too," Aaron Foote added.
Concerns about gondola changing Squamish's "small town feel"
Sitting nearby was a group of seven 19-year-olds from Squamish, visiting home for the weekend. Of them, three boys and two girls who grew up in Squamish said that they were in favour of the gondola, based on what they'd read in the papers and through conversations.
Jereomy Pelletier said he was concerned about how a gondola may change the "small town feel" of Squamish.
"I just enjoy having Squamish being the pristine area where you have to hike to get anywhere," Pelletier said. "Because we have Grouse if you want to take the gondola up, or you have Whistler for all that, where Squamish is the hiking town."
"I think it'd be great for Squamish because the downtown core's been the issue, it's been dying out," said his friend Clinton Shard. "And a lot of it's moving past downtown into Garibaldi Estates and that area. It would help bring more tourism downtown."
However, his friend Sam Bowerman expressed reservations about the viability of a year-round gondola.
"I don't know if it's something that's running steadily two weeks of the year and then on weekends the rest of the year—it hardly appears to be a viable business venture in my mind," Bowerman said.
Caila Martin and Brianna Ross, both 19 and from Squamish, added their support for the gondola.
"I think I'm for it, because it'll bring a different crowd to Squamish, the kind that wouldn't hike up The Chief but would still like to go up," said Martin. "I haven't thought too much about the environmental effect, but it would have to bring enough people to make the cutting down of trees worth it."
"I'm for it—I don't think it'll affect The Chief at all, since it's an entity over there, and I think it'll bring a lot of people here," Ross said.
Greg O'Malley, a 26-year-old resident of Brackendale since 2009, [pictured at top of story] said that generally thought it was a good idea, but he also had reservations.
"I think generally my friends have thought it'd be a neat addition to the town. It's not like there's any shortage of space around here, so building a trail system, as long as it's not detrimental to the area, is a good idea," he said.
"But it depends on how tastefully it's done. If they flatten all the trees and build a 500 car parking lot, it's not good."
Downtown business owners and local residents support gondola
Back on the ground in downtown Brackendale at the Shady Tree Neighbourhood Pub where about a dozen locals and regulars gathered to relax and socialize, Brackendale resident Phillip James said he supports the gondola because it would help Squamish develop economically, with minimal impact to The Chief.
"I think it's not going to affect the hike of The Chief, and it's going to bring in more people, more business to Squamish," said the 56-year-old James, who has lived in Brackendale for 20 years. "It's not costing the city anything, it's a privately funded deal—yeah, I'm excited about it."
Down the road from the pub, Shannon and Jason Lorenz were enjoying an ice cream with their two young children on the wooded patio of the Brackendale Bean Around the World coffee shop.
"I'm looking forward to it," Jason Lorenz, 36, said. "It would bring access to a new area for recreational use, for locals and tourists, and it would bring in new jobs."
"We own a construction business, and I also do events, so both of our industries can be impacted which would be awesome—it'd bring a variety of jobs," Shannon Lorenz said.
"In terms of recreation we both mountain bike and hike, and for a gondola we'd have to go to Whistler to go peak to peak. Having kids, to have that right at your doorstep it's pretty amazing."
A better proposal than last time, some think
"The last people who proposed a gondola project basically got run out of town, but that's because it wasn't proactively done," said Stan Matwychuk, during his shift at Howe Sound Inn and Brewing Company, one of the businesses in town which stand to profit from increased tourism.
On a late Sunday afternoon Matwychuk was serving micro-brewed beer during a shift at the hotel in downtown. A popular hangout for local hikers and climbers, Matwychuk didn't go a full minute without filling up a pint of locally brewed beer as he discussed his hopes for the estimated $15-million to $20-million project.
He moved to Squamish nine years ago and he said he's hopeful about the gondola increasing tourism in Squamish. The developers care about the community, he said, and have done rigorous public consultations.
"It opens up a whole new realm," says local resident and business owner
As the sun set over Squamish, over a dozen people sat sipping teas and eating vegetarian and vegan-friendly meals at Zephyr Cafe, a popular spot for locals and visitors from out of town.
Colleen Myers, owner of Zephyr Cafe and Squamish resident since 2003, said that she's followed the Sea to Sky gondola closely in the news and read the reports from Ground Effects, the company associated with the gondola bid.
"I think their point of view and opinions are valid, but I don't think they represent the majority of Squamish," she said about the Friends of the Squamish Chief (FOSC), a local community group opposed to the gondola. "It's taken me awhile to get to being, 'I'm pro.'"
Myers explained her reasoning behind supporting the gondola.
"It opens up a whole new realm, such as high-end rock climbing guiding companies. It opens up world-class guiding companies to guide people who want to paraglide off. It's not just khaki wearing tourists and their cameras. It opens up a whole new economic realm for Squamish to use."
Myers, who also sits on the board of directors for the Squamish Arts Council, said that she wants to see downtown Squamish flourish with greater urban density as a result of the gondola's economic benefits. Her one hesitation, she said, was the precedent the gondola was setting for taking land out of provincial park lands.
"Once you set the precedent for anything you can't take it back," she said. "I'm hoping that there's enough community consultation and they jump through enough hoops. They have to prove to enough people that it's win-win."
Small but vocal group decry province selling park lands, unaccountability to public
However, the Friends of the Squamish Chief maintain that the BC government has hit a new low in public accountability for commercial development of provincial park lands with its approval of the gondola.
"This is a provincial park, and that means to me we're all stakeholders in these parks," FOSC member Theresa Negrieff told The Vancouver Observer. "I think there's a failure of democracy when people don't have their voices heard."
A gondola next to The Chief was one of the reasons Negrieff moved out of Squamish in October after six years. Now a Victoria resident, she said she did not feel the proponents of the Sea to Sky Gondola Corp. properly represented the concerns of the entire community in its reports to the government, and that the government failed to properly inform and be accountable to all British Columbians in its assessment of the gondola.
Negrieff said that even the official Sea to Sky Gondola Corp.'s website stated early on in the process that BC Parks would have a hearing, but this was later removed.
"I had a chance to speak with the developers directly and said that I'm not in favour of the project," she said. "But when I saw the submission to the Environment Minister and there was no mention of any opposition I thought, 'Well are there other people like me who actually said that they're not in favour and just don't have a voice in this?' Because the developers aren't mentioning the fact that there was some opposition."
"It's like everyone was in favour and I'm sure there were people like me who told them that the project won't happen, but we weren't named in the document."
In August the group appealed to the province's ombudsman to force the province to take a second review of a commercial development that they argue has implications far beyond Squamish.