How many people really live in Revelstoke?

A new cell-tower data study points to a much larger Revelstoke population than the Canada census numbers. We spoke with Revelstoke city economic development director Ingrid Bron to parse the data and find out what's going on.

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Crowds flock to Mackenzie Avenue for the annual Canada Day parade. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine file photo

This story first appeared in print in the April/May issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

If you spend time trying to track down quantitative information on our town, you soon discover Revelstoke is a data desert. Looking for health-care related stats, such as vaccination rates? We’re lumped into a larger Interior Health catchment area, making the stats largely irrelevant. Ditto for reliable employment statistics. The situation repeats itself again and again.

For those parched for data on what’s really happening in Revelstoke, the release of some early information from the Telus Insights study in March was interesting. The study, which was commissioned last year by the City of Revelstoke, the Revelstoke Accommodation Association and Revelstoke Mountain Resort, uses data scraped by Telus from cell phone tower traffic to provide data breakdowns on what’s happening in town. It can provide information on population, visitors, demographics, country of origin and who-knows-what-else that can be gleaned from your cell phone’s handshake with the cell tower.

Telus delivered a preliminary report to the City of Revelstoke, which then turned around and released a teaser of information from the study in March. The “resident” count grabbed the headlines. The report found that the number of residents in town was about double that of the 2016 Canada Census figures.

The study also found that there was a “monthly unique count” of 200,000 people in Revelstoke in May, including visitors, but that includes people who may have just been passing through town.

Are there really twice as many residents here as is reflected in the census?

To compare the Telus data resident count (an estimated 13,500 in October, peaking at 14,750 at the end of December) with the 2016 Canada Census number (6,719) is comparing apples to oranges. For example, the Canada Census doesn’t count “foreign residents,” such as the many here to work and play for the snow season. The federal census also counts the “main residence” for those with more than one home; there are many second homes in Revelstoke. The census data is taken in May, which is among the slowest seasons in Revelstoke; the Telus data is spread over the entire year.

So, what was the study’s definition of a resident? “Collectively, we decided, anybody who has been in town for 45 [consecutive] days,” said Ingrid Bron, the Director of Community Economic Development for the City of Revelstoke. She said the intent of the data study is to get a better handle on what’s actually happening on the ground.

As we talked, Bron flipped through the document, which looked to be about 75 pages. It contained lots of graphs and charts. Since the city is only releasing high-level summaries of the data, who really knows what it says.

The data will have many practical benefits for Revelstoke. When you flush a toilet, the sewage system doesn’t care if you’re a seasonnaire from Sydney, a born-’n’-raised Revelstokian or a heliskiier from Hamburg. Basic infrastructure like water, sewer and roads is all affected by population, be it seasonal, permanent or tourist. Basic municipal services, like police, health care and emergency services are also affected. The Revelstoke RCMP, for example, has for years made the case to city council for more officers, comparing population and RCMP staff levels with similar communities in B.C. You can bet your Strathcona High-Brown Police Boots that during next year’s budget cycle the detachment commander will wield the new data while making the ask for more officers again.

With so much data available in the report, the fact that the city chose to highlight the population numbers in their first communiqué is telling. The city has high hopes that the information will help it make the case for additional funding from other levels of government.

While the long-suffering residential property-tax payer may feel like the weight of the tax burden is entirely on their shoulders, the reality is a significant chunk of any municipality’s budget comes from the province and the feds in the form of grants and other subsidies. The data will be useful when making the case for assistance, but it will be a case-by-case basis and will also have mixed outcomes.

For example, the data will be helpful when making the argument for more affordable housing assistance from various funding partners. Bron said that issues like housing and infrastructure motivated the city to participate in the study.

“We’re seeing pressure from every one of those areas. That’s what compelled the city to get this data,” she said.

However, in the case physical infrastructure, such as sewage treatment, it could help make the case for more funding, but it could also trigger additional requirements and costs — if you say you need a new treatment plant because there are twice as many people in town as before, you’re also going to have to build a bigger, more expensive facility. There will be a variety of considerations for many dozens of infrastructure funding asks of other levels of government.

Bron said that to her knowledge Revelstoke was the first municipality in B.C. to commission a Telus Insights report. Will the data convince partners that we’re a special case? Maybe, maybe not. Any municipality could make a special-case argument — Salmon Arm is slammed with lake tourists in the summer, and Golden gets an influx of winter tourists just like us, for example.

In our interview, Bron repeatedly stressed the need to “validate” the data. “It’s understanding the methodology, understanding what it means,” she said.

Bron said the city will be releasing information in stages, but be prepared to wait. A non-disclosure agreement with Telus means the city is keeping the data under wraps. The full-year cycle of data collection doesn’t end until May.

When will we find out more?

“It’ll be a long period of the next six months or longer,” Bron said “So we understand the impacts of this information. We don’t know what that means, which is why we need to do more analysis.” Bron added that further data releases could be a year or more off and will likely come in stages.

She said city staff would be looking at the data department-by-department to better understand its relevance to their operations.

In a statement, mayor Gary Sulz said the data will help the city plan for the future. “We have known for some time that our population far exceeds what census figures tell us it is. We will be able to use more accurate population figures to understand the demand for housing, to understand the demands on city services and infrastructure, and to make sure that the community’s growth leaves no one behind,” Sulz said.