Sun Peaks’ potential journey to economic sustainability

Solutions Journalism Reporting bursaries are supported by Journalists for Human Rights and the Solutions Journalism Network and made possible by funding from the McConnell Foundation.

The pandemic had a significant affect on businesses in Sun Peaks. – Photo SPIN

Running an independent, small business is a challenging proposition in any environment.

And doing so in a resort community like Sun Peaks—which experiences significant highs and lows and has a relatively transient population—holds a unique set of challenges. 

Longtime resident Kevin Tessier, owner of Voyageur Bistro and the North West Voyageur Company, said international bus tours have been critical to getting his restaurant through the offseason, but even they can prove challenging. 

The tours tend to mostly come on the weekends, he explained.  

“I went from having two busses on a given Friday or Saturday to having ten buses,” said Tessier, adding those nights also tend to be popular with regional traffic, making it challenging to balance between the two types of guests.  

When compared to the resort’s infancy, around two decades ago, Sun Peaks has made significant progress in becoming the all season resort it strives to be. 

Big investments in recreational instastructure, like the golf course and mountain bike park, and one-off summer events have made the resort a much more attractive all-season destination. 

But business is still uneven. According to Sun Peaks Mountain Resort Municipality (SPMRM) mayor Al Raine, who has led the municipality since its incorporation in 2010, there is significant progress to be made. 

When asked to quantify how he thinks the community is doing when it comes to having a sustainable economy, he said he gives things a “five-plus” out of 10. 

“I truly believe that the best is yet to come, and we have tremendous potential if we use our brains,” said Raine.

A skier in Sun Peaks takes advantage of wide open slopes. – Photo SPIN

But what precisely can the young community do? And are there any similar destinations that can serve as models for it?

The obvious example to look at is nearby Whistler, B.C. which has seen a dizzying amount of success over the past twenty years, and now sees three million visits a year spread relatively evenly over the year. 

Through careful planning, officials there have worked hard to organize events that stagger visitors, rather than concentrate the lion’s share of tourism in the winter. And while many have mixed feelings about what Whistler has become (long lift lines! $200 day passes!), the Coast Mountains community has certainly trial run some initiatives that are worth looking at. 

The Whistler Model 

According to Peter Larose, a tourism policy expert and Thompson Rivers University Faculty of Adventure instructor, Whistler has been a worldwide leader in creating a sustainable tourism model. 

Larose acknowledged sustainability might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of the busy locale, which in recent years has developed a reputation being expensive and busy. 

But Larose said Whistler, along with its island neighbour Tofino, have been so successful in marketing their product that they are now in a position of having to carefully manage their visitation numbers.  

“They deal with millions of people trying to come to the community, with the majority being in probably about three months of the ski season,” said Larose of Whistler. 

“They really need to think about capacity management, and how they can shift demand over time, so not everybody wants to come up to the resort on the same day of the same weekend.”

The resort has in part been able to do this by staggering key events through the year, helping to spread out visitation. Things like the World Ski and Snowboard Festival bring people in the late spring, and a succession of summertime events, from iconic mountain biking festival Crankworx, to Cornucopia, a food and drink festival, keep the village bustling through what was once the off-season. 

The success of Whistler is difficult to argue with from an economic standpoint (even while appreciating that it benefits from being located in close proximity to around 2.8 million people who live in the Lower Mainland). 

A 2013 Resort Municipality of Whistler report noted summertime visitation had actually surpassed wintertime. 

The report categories some yearly figures that shed light on its success from an economic standpoint: 

$1.27 billion total estimated annual end-consumer commercial spending in Whistler, with 85 to 90 per cent generated by visitors 

$405 million in annual tax revenue generated by the resort and community

— 22.5 per cent of the province’s tourism export revenue comes from Whistler

Dan Wilson, a community planning and monitoring specialist with the Whistler Centre for Sustainability, said that while he doesn’t see Whistler as “sustainable” from an environmental standpoint, it has adroitly built itself into an economic powerhouse with a strong international reputation. 

It also provides a high quality of life for its residents, he feels. The community has slowly and steadily built its excellent amenities and parks, such as the valley trail, which benefit locals and visitors alike. Whistler has a world-class library, recreational facility, and a number of high-end training facilities associated with the 2010 Vancouver-Whistler Olympic Games, like Whistler Olympic Park and the Whistler Athletes Centre. 

Moreover, it has slowly and surely added to its cultural offerings, with the Audain Art Museum and its Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre. 

All this, argued Wilson, has created a strong brand and identity for the community, and has made has made it particularly attractive to wealthy international travellers, who make up a substantial amount of its tourism revenue. 

“[It’s] one of the things that made Whistler successful from the perspective of incomes and wages and revenues for businesses,” he said. “That long-haul traveller is staying longer [than regional visitors] and taking part in many activities.”

Wilson said this high-end market does face a challenge going forward. He expects the cost of flights will increase as governments levy taxes to take more dramatic steps to fight climate change. 

Wilson said while the high-end international market might be able and willing to absorb the higher cost, in the long run, this could be at odds with goals around reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Whistler Housing Model 

From the perspectives of people looking to make their lives in ski resorts, there perhaps has been no more important development in Whistler than its employee housing initiative. 

The fast moving COVID-19 pandemic exposed the situation facing many workers who aren’t lucky enough to live in it. Health experts have pointed to the community’s crowded living conditions as being a significant factor in the transmission of the COVID-19 virus in the community, which has had the unenviable distinction of being a hotspot for the virus.  

In Whistler, it can cost upwards of $850 a month to share a room in a crowded home. 

Yet while the unregulated real estate market may be grim for workers, a large segment of the community’s full-time residents live in employee housing, which is operated by the Whistler Housing Authority, an offshoot of the Resort Municipality of Whistler. 

To qualify to rent a or own a WHA unit, one must work in Whistler or be a retiree who prevously worked in the commnity. You cannot own another home, in Whistler or anywhere else. The WHA homes available for purchase have a covenant on them that restricts how much they can increase in price, effectively tying the increase to the rate of inflation. 

The WHA has a mix of suites, apartments, town houses, duplexes, detached houses, and dormitories, allowing for a wide variety of households to live in them. 

Formed in 1997, after years of community advocacy and attempts at creating employee housing, the WHA’s mandate is to guard against Whistler becoming a place where workers work and not live. And in this regard, it has been very successful, creating much needed non-market housing in the community. 

According to Marla Zucht, general manager for the WHA, a key move the resort took early on involved passing a bylaw 21 years ago that requires commercial developers to provide on-or off-site employee housing in new developments or pay cash-in-lieu into a municipal housing. 

This helped the resort slowly build its housing stock, and laid the groundwork for its more recent and ambitious projects. 

As a community, Whistler has set a goal of having 75 per cent of the community’s workers living within municipal boundaries and is actually exceeding this. According to Zucht, it boasts an inventory of  6,600 “employee beds of both affordable rental and affordable homeowner homes.” 

In combination with market housing, the community can house close to 80 per cent of employees locally. 

The WHA has also been on a building spree of late, having completed four new purpose built affordable rental apartment buildings in the last five years that now provide 275 new beds of affordable housing

The program is not without its drawbacks. 

In 2020, the median waitlist time was approximately four years to purchase a WHA property and three years to rent. And the fact that a WHA unit rises in value with inflation, rather than in line with the market can also be seen as a drawback. 

Despite these limitations, the program is seen by many as crucial to the community, given the astronomically high cost of homes and rentals in the community driven by recreational property buyers. 

“It’s been essential to the economy, having local business owners and local employees being able to live here and be part of the community,” said Wilson. 

The WHA has benefited from support from all levels of government over the years and now has a sizable team dedicated to managing WHA properties and developing new opportunities for employee housing.  

For example, a recent four story storey WHA development in the Cheakamus Crossing neighbourhood that will add 53 beds to the community’s housing stock benefited from $7.3 million into the build through its Rental Construction Financing initiative, and another $1.7 million through the CMHC’s Affordable Housing Innovation Fund. 

The WHA is also developing land for sale on the private market as a way to offset the cost of the next phase of its Cheakamus development. 

According to Zucht, the Whistler model can be replicated in other places.

“Many municipalities are experiencing similar challenges with housing for their workforce,” she said. “These challenges are being felt by communities across the country. We are not alone and the tools and strategies we have developed and used in Whistler can easily be replicated in other communities.”

Getting a strong employee housing system in place is the No. 1 recommendation of a brand new housing needs assessment conducted for Sun Peaks.  

Paid for by the Union of British Columbia Municipalities’ (UBCM) Housing Needs Report program, the report states that Sun Peaks is a growing community where the cost of homes outstrips the income of workers here by a large margin. 

“An affordability analysis indicated that the cost of a single-detached home in Sun Peaks now exceeds the purchasing power of nearly all family types and income brackets,” stated the report, which added the median single-detached home sold for $805,000. 

“Generally, rental housing is more affordable, but availability is limited and single-income households and low- to moderate-income households still struggle to find affordable options.”

According to Larose, providing housing for workers—and particularly to those in managerial wages who are committed to staying long term—is critical. 

“That’s probably one of the biggest challenges, if not the biggest challenge, is the affordability of housing for workers that are going to be on the front lines, or in lower management or supervisory positions,” he said. 

Larose said it’s also important from the standpoint of principle. 

“If you’re working and earning a median level income in Canada, somewhere, you should be able to afford some kind of a house, right?” 

Taking Steps in Sun Peaks 

In recent years, certain developments—such as the opening of the Sun Peaks Community Health Centre, the pharmacy, the alpine fitness centre and the yoga studio—have gone a long way to making the community a more appealing place to live year round. 

The village in the winter of 2020. – Photo SPIN.

Planned new additions to the community, such as a library and brick-and mortar school, will only add to its appeal, drawing more people to the resort. The rise of remote working—spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic—could also lead to more migration, as people look to communities with excellent recreation opportunities to live in. 

Creating year round business has been a strong focus for community stakeholders, including Tourism Sun Peaks, Sun Peaks Resort LLP (SPR), as well as the municipality. Some of their early combined initiatives, such as fostering the bus tour business, have no doubt been a tremendous help to local business. 

According to SPMRM mayor Al Raine, when it comes to creating higher levels of year-round tourism, there is no silver bullet. In contrast to the winter season—when people flock to the resort to ski and snowboard—it’s important to have a wide range of offerings, whether it be summer concerts, pickleball or mountain biking. 

In Raine’s view, the summer months represent a major opportunity for growth. He noted the majority of British Columbia take their vacation over this period. 

“In the four months of summer, that’s probably when 65 to 70 per cent of British Columbia’s tourism activities actually take place,” he said. 

Raine said he thinks one local build—the roof over the skating rink—will pay long-term dividends for the community, creating an all-weather facility that will be suitable for conferences and concerts alike. 

“We need an all weather facility to host major events,” said Raine. “I truly believe that events are going to become a major force in our success in winter and summer.” 

Raine said he believes Sun Peaks’ centralized location will serve it well as a natural gathering place for the region. 

When it comes to employee housing, Raine said he sees it as a priority for the community and likes the WHA model. The community formed the Sun Peaks Housing Authority (SPHA) in early 2017, and the authority is currently in the process of acquiring land from the province for employee housing build. 

The planned locations include sites at Industrial Way as well as near the community’s mailboxes. The municipality is currently awaiting an archeological survey on the land in question, and it will likely be several months until the land can be transferred by the process. 

What will be built on the land is yet to be decided, and as Raine explained there are many variables at play. “The problem is that resorts attract people for lifestyle,” he explained. “So how do you build housing that will guarantee places for the seasonal worker? And how do you build housing that will guarantee places for those people who come to Sun Peaks to start a family and want to make their lives in a mountain resort?” 

“Those people are all competing with the [young skier] that wants to come for a gap year and the retired folks who want to have an active retirement and spend 10 or 15 years of their later years skiing and having fun and playing.” 

The SPHA has yet to get so far as to develop a plan for what restrictions on the housing would look like and how one would qualify, but Raine said he thinks Whistler got it “mostly right.” Raine said that he could envision the authority working with individual families to build non-market housing on a collective piece of property, or work with developers to demand that a certain number of units be available for housing authority purchases. 

Building Towards Economic Sustainability 

As Sun Peaks moves forward and builds upon what’s already here, larger questions around economic sustainability will no doubt play a larger role in community discussions. 

The resort’s distance from the Lower Mainland has tempered its growth, but it is still dealing with a similar issue when it comes to affordable housing. And as the community grows in popularity, the need for sustainable housing options for workers will come into sharper focus for community and business leaders. 

Council is currently in the process of drafting an update of its Official Community Plan, which can be used to set out a vision for the community. Still in its infancy, residents who feel that employee housing should be a priority can do so by providing input to it as well as getting involved in the SPHA. Grassroots advocacy for employee housing was vital for the creation of the WHA, and will be here as well. 

Tessier said in his view, there is room to improve when it comes to creating a more even-handed flow of travellers, though he is quick to add that things are much better than they once were. 

While breaks can be nice, closures can result in numerous challenges, from equipment maintenance to retaining staff. 

Reflecting back on pre-pandemic days, Tessier said he was often on the fence whether to keep open during the fall shoulder season. Some years he did, others he didn’t. 

“It was always debatable—do we stay open? Or do we close? I think if you’re talking about sustainability, there’s a lot more that can be done.”  

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