Slow growth: Challenging the mountain town development growth paradigm

Does Revelstoke need to grow to succeed?

File photo: Cyclists near the Columbia River under the Revelstoke Bridge. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer

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

‘Whistler’s that way,’ read a bumper sticker I spotted when I first moved to town in 2008. The graphic was an old-timey pointing hand, except with the index finger curled up and the middle finger fully extended. It was a common theme of conversations over pints at the time: Whatever happens, let’s not become Whistler. It still is.

Consternation about what then-new Revelstoke Mountain Resort would mean for Revelstoke has been an ongoing theme here. Will Revelstoke’s resort-town trajectory destroy the mountain town character that makes Revelstoke attractive in the first place?

Just like suburban developments named after what got bulldozed to create them — Aspen Grove, Cedar Slopes, Marmot Fields — is Revelstoke bulldozing itself in an effort to become … what?

The ‘slow growth’ movement

In late November, planners from mountain resort towns across the west converged on the sprawling mountain community of Canmore to talk shop at the Mountain and Resort Town Planners Summit. Planners from Revelstoke’s city hall attended, taking in sessions on worker housing, wildlife issues, short-term vacation rentals and the other challenges mountain towns share in common.

While most presentations focused on dealing with the problems associated with resort growth, one challenged whether growth was needed at all.

A panel titled Challenging the Growth Paradigm featured panelists Karen Sorensen, Mayor of Banff; homogeneous corporate resort-model opponent and Jackson Hole resident Jonathan Schechter; and anti-growth activist Dave Gardner. The panel focused on the downsides of rapid resort development, asking whether growth, which is often cast as a panacea for issues such as taxation and infrastructure renewal, is necessary at all, and whether it actually causes more problems than it solves.

To better understand where they were coming from, the Mountaineer reached out to all three.

Jonathan Schechter

Jonathan Schechter

Schechter is the founder and executive director of Jackson Hole’s Charture Institute, a think tank that focuses on growth, change and sustainability in places of ecological significance. He challenged Revelstoke residents to see their problems — housing shortages, increasing infrastructure costs, unsustainable wages, unattainable housing — as universal problems faced by all mountain resort towns.

“Your community seems to be sick with this ailment that everybody recognizes is not right, but you tend to get focused on the symptoms,” Schechter said. “The fundamental cause of the disease is the kind of economy you’ve chosen for yourself by signing up to have the mountain resort — that kind of economy tends to destroy the character of the community as you know it. The tourism economy that you have embraced is fundamentally non-sustainable … [it] rests on a business model [of] hiring a ton of people and paying them dirt.”

In a slow-paced Wyoming drawl, Schechter said he sees the same passionate and divisive arguments play out in mountain communities across the West.

“These are damnably important issues made more complicated still by passion, because people care desperately about these communities,” he said. In Revelstoke, the vacation rentals issue has pitted those opposed to the practice with vacation rental owners who say it’s a necessity to get by in an increasingly expensive town. He said the economies of resort towns change faster than perception, and the perception changes faster than policy, leaving the community in a perpetual reactionary phase.

“Your planning mindset is not focusing on the economic realities, because again you’re in a reactive mode. It never becomes a question of, ‘What do we want for our community?’ It’s, ‘How do we cope with things that are crashing over us like a tidal wave?’”

Schechter, who visited Revelstoke during RMR’s early development phase, recommends that the community takes a step back and inventories what’s important, such as quality of life, the natural environment and community character. Without community priorities, city leaders default to tracking economic indicators such as tourism or development growth, he said. He worries that in the end, what made Revelstoke a special place will be destroyed.

Banff mayor Karen Sorensen

Banff mayor Karen Sorensen. Photo: handout

In our telephone conversation, Karen Sorensen comes across as about what you’d expect from a small-town mayor: upbeat, booster-y and sleeves-rolled-up for the next challenge. (The new snow removal infographic map that town staff had created worked really well, she tells me.)

Banff, Alberta is located within a national park. As a result, the agreement that created the municipality in 1990 contained many exceptional restrictions designed to limit the town’s impact on the natural environment. These restrictions mean Banff has avoided many development-growth-related pressures, making it unique among mountain resort towns.

“The horse never left this barn,” mayor Sorensen told the Mountaineer. “We are blessed because we never got too far ahead of ourselves.” The town restricts residency to those who work in town, is essentially out of commercial space and can’t grow out of its existing footprint.

“There really isn’t any negotiation here,” she said. “This is the way it is.”

Vacation rentals are strictly forbidden, and city staff “aggressively enforce” violators.

“We do challenge that growth paradigm, in the concept that growth is needed to sustain economic prosperity,” she said.

Despite these restrictions, Sorensen noted the community is still experiencing growth in visitation and tourism, noting they are doing it without increasing physical development.

“When nobody can build another hotel, or we are never going to have another Walmart, you don’t need the people to work there.”

Sorensen said that although Banff’s rules were established when the town was formally founded, it has benefited from them. She recommends that similar mountain towns be proactive in seeking clarity about its future goals. “Whatever rules that are put in place, they need to be black and white and they need to be enforced. I think it takes political will,” she said. She added that operating on data instead of anecdotes has been key to Banff’s success. She also acknowledged the town still faces many of the struggles that plague mountain resorts, such as unaffordable housing and a housing shortage.

GrowthBuster Dave Gardner

Dave Gardner. Photo: handout

Gardener is the host of the GrowthBusters podcast, which critiques development pressure and its interplay with municipal political cultures. At its core, his advocacy seeks to dispel the “myth” that growth equals prosperity.

“It all really started with my observations of urban growth in my own hometown of Colorado Springs [which was] in a hurry to be like Denver,” he said.

He started out focusing on Colorado Springs, but since then he’s moved on to challenge all things development-growth related, with a particular focus on how development is sold as solution to infrastructure challenges, yet it creates its own infrastructure challenges.

“Every growing community faces those, and it’s largely because virtually no communities are requiring the behaviour of growth to pay its way,” Gardner said. “The developers putting together the projects are frequently subsidized.”

The one-two punch of sprawl was the advent of car culture in the 20th Century then the post-Second World War drive to suburbanize. The urban landscape was transformed, and the suburban landscape created. These low-density, drive-everywhere spaces required a massive effort to create the infrastructure to support new modes of living, and the taxpayer footed the bill, like it or not. Now the infrastructure that enables these suburban landscapes needs to be repaired, replaced and upgraded, leaving virtually all municipalities in Canada with an ‘infrastructure deficit,’ which describes the gap between what it would cost to upgrade and the empty coffers at city halls.

“Those citizens are left holding the bag,” says Gardner. “No one’s willing to raise taxes on themselves.”

Gardner’s activism focuses on how development, pitched as a solution to problems, begets more problems. Another focus is general environmental sustainability of development decisions and encouraging communities to act locally to live within the biosphere’s means.

“Now we’re on a full planet,” Gardner says. “There’s no away to throw things. If a community’s ecological footprint exceeds its bio-capacity … that means somewhere else is having to give that up.”

When asked to distill his activism into advice for Revelstoke, Gardner emphasizes the need to reach back to our roots.

“I would be careful to advise them not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”