Pemberton's revival

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      Entering the courtyard of the Pemberton Heritage Museum is like walking into a long-lost period of B.C. history. In the yard and in a machine shed, you can see various tools used by farmers and loggers of a bygone era. There’s also part of an old ox cart, which was used by a priest as he travelled along the original Cariboo Gold Rush Trail. In addition, you can see several log houses, built by the area’s early settlers, that have been moved onto the site.

      In an interview in a historical bunkhouse converted into a gift shop, curator Nicole Madigan told the Georgia Straight that the museum was a labour of love created by volunteers over a 50-year period. Madigan pointed out that the town, originally known as Port Pemberton, was created at the north end of Lillooet Lake on what was then known as the Douglas Trail. This was the route taken before the much better known Cariboo Wagon Road was established through the Fraser Canyon in the 1860s.

      “We were the forgotten footprint,” Madigan said, “and this is why I’m proud to be part of the volunteer effort to ensure that Pemberton’s role in the founding of our province isn’t forgotten.”

      Like many other people in Pemberton, Madigan was looking forward to the next big event in her town’s history. From Friday to Sunday (July 25 to 27), dozens of bands and musicians—including Coldplay, Jay-Z, Tom Petty, and the Tragically Hip—will perform in the Pemberton Music Festival. The town, situated 35 kilometres north of Whistler and with a population of about 2,300, will host 40,000 visitors a day over the three-day event. And that has people talking about a new economic boom coming to the town.

      “Everybody is hoping to take advantage of the business opportunities,” Madigan said. “It’s a pretty slow place. This is the most exciting thing that has happened here since the gold rush.”

      There have been similar reactions from young people in the community. Jessi Preston, who works in the Pony Espresso, told the Straight that she can’t wait to see the reaction of residents to the number of people who will show up in town. Preston, a high-school student who moved to Pemberton a year ago from London, said her favourite act is Coldplay. When asked how she would react if lead singer Chris Martin walked up to the counter, Preston replied: “I would probably pass out.”

      On the street a couple of blocks away, another high-school student, Mark Crapper, said his friends are “pretty stoked” about the festival. When asked about his favourites, he replied, “Wolfmother, Nine Inch Nails, Coldplay, Jay-Z.”

      Madigan noted that the last time 40,000 people came through Pemberton was during the gold rush of 1858. By 1859, according to Pemberton: The History of a Settlement (Pemberton Pioneer Women, 1977), agricultural vendors were selling tomatoes for 75 cents and cucumbers for $1 to the gold miners. But that changed after engineers completed the Yale-Lillooet route in 1864. “The Douglas Trail fell into disuse,” she said. “So not a lot happened between 1860 and the 1890s here.”

      The arrival of the railroad brought some settlers and enabled farmers to move their products to markets. But according to Madigan, the community was still very isolated. Electricity didn’t come to the village until 1951, and the first phones were installed in 1953. The road from Whistler reached the town in 1967.

      “Pemberton was living like the 1930s even in the 1960s,” she said. “There was just one dirt road.”

      From the 1970s to the 1990s, forestry and agriculture were the economic mainstays. In many respects, Pemberton was the poor sister to Whistler, housing many workers who would drive to the resort every day during the winter.

      However, that situation is changing, according to Mayor Jordan Sturdy. In an interview with the Straight at the town’s small municipal hall, he suggested that the Pemberton Festival is just one aspect of a broader economic revival taking place in the idyllic valley.

      Sturdy acknowledged that the local forest industry faces serious challenges because of the high Canadian dollar and the drop in U.S. housing starts. But tourism is increasing; First Nations in the area are becoming more involved in the economy; the municipality is in the process of acquiring water licences to create a run-of-river power project in Pemberton Creek; and the $700-million upgrade to the Sea to Sky Highway is employing many people and stimulating interest in the real-estate sector.

      “When it is pretty much a three- or four-lane highway, you will be able to commute from Pemberton to North Vancouver in less than two hours,” Sturdy said.

      In addition, the agriculture business could be on the verge of greater prosperity, thanks to rising global food prices. The valley’s rich, productive soil is a virus-free area for growing seed potatoes, which makes them very desirable to potato farmers in the United States. Sturdy noted that there is a new cranberry farm going into the area. His family operates the North Arm Farm, which produces asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, pumpkins, sweet corn, and flowers.

      Sturdy, a tanned, muscular, bearded man, looks like he has spent a lot of time outdoors. He said he will attend the farmers market at the Pemberton Festival, offering fruit and vegetables to festivalgoers in much the same manner as the earliest Pemberton residents sold their produce to the gold miners. “I’ll be there selling my wares,” he said with a chuckle.

      After the interview, Sturdy drove out of the village in his white pickup to the festival site, which is less than two kilometres to the east of the main village. It also happens to be across the street from his farm. While Sturdy was standing in the field near the highway, another pickup pulled up. Out popped Tom Horler, a member of the board of Tourism Whistler and the owner of McDonald’s franchises in Whistler and Pemberton.

      “We’re doing quite a lot of preparation at both locations,” Horler said. “The economic impact of the festival is far-reaching. It’s obviously not just Pemberton but Whistler as well. I know room nights in Whistler over the festival weekend are booked up 13 percent over the same period last year.”

      He forecast sales increases at the two McDonald’s outlets of 300 to 400 percent during the festival. Horler said he arrived at this estimate by looking at the increase in business that a fellow franchisee recorded during the Merritt Mountain Music Festival and then comparing attendance figures. He is also bringing up additional staff from Metro Vancouver.

      “So we’re erring on the side of optimism,” Horler said.

      Back in town, restaurateur Samuel Fong is still figuring out how he will cope with the crowds. Fong, owner of the Centennial Café, told the Straight that he has just 50 to 60 seats in his midsized establishment. He’s considering converting his business into a takeout restaurant over the course of the festival. Like Horler, Fong also plans to have additional staff working over the weekend. He is happy that the festival has made Pemberton famous across the province. But he also knows he can’t possibly serve all the people who might show up at the door.

      “If they all come up here, we will be very crowded,” Fong said in an interview in his restaurant. “That’s a problem.”

      Paul Selina, president of the Pemberton Chamber of Commerce, told the Straight in a phone interview that he recently travelled to the United Kingdom to determine the economic impact of the Glastonbury Festival of the Performing Arts. He said the net value of this festival to the national economy is about $144 million, with slightly less than half flowing into local communities. Glastonbury attracts slightly more than four times the number of visitors that will attend the Pemberton Festival. Selina said that after adjusting for higher fuel prices and a higher cost of living in the U.K., this led him to estimate a net economic impact of $9 million on Pemberton and Whistler from this weekend’s festivities.

      Then there is all the publicity, which Selina estimates is worth at least $1 million to the community. “It has really put Pemberton on the map,” he said.

      Live Nation’s president of touring and business development, Shane Bourbonnais, told the Straight in a phone interview that the company is spending upward of $5 million on local labour and services to stage the event. That includes covering 100 percent of policing costs, plus paying for 500 security personnel. In addition, $120,000 will go into a community foundation, and Live Nation has also paid the municipality $108,000 for use of the airport.

      “We have our research team from Los Angeles coming up to really put together some concrete numbers, and we will have a really good snapshot of what the event brought into the area after the festival is all wrapped up,” Bourbonnais said.

      Live Nation had to secure agreements from 14 landowners to assemble the site, which is on the road toward Mount Currie. Bourbonnais, who has had a place in Pemberton for four-and-a-half years, said he’s happy to have played a role in giving the community an economic boost.

      “The locals are loving it,” he said. “They’re proud to see what’s happening in the valley. It’s nice to see that Pemberton is finally getting some recognition.”

      In recent years, the 2010 Games have attracted the most international attention to the Sea to Sky corridor. But Sturdy told the Straight that the festival is probably a bigger deal for Pemberton.

      “This event, I think, will have a far greater impact in a real way than the Olympics will,” he said. “But that remains to be seen.”

      Not everyone, however, likes the idea of Pemberton becoming a stopping point on the international music-festival circuit. In the Centennial Café, one patron, electrical apprentice Gabriel McCormick, said he thinks it’s going to be a “crazy” situation with so many young people descending on the community.

      He thinks there will be massive traffic tie-ups on the highway, preventing Mount Currie residents from entering Pemberton. “I’m getting out of town because I have to work,” McCormick said.

      McCormick also predicted security problems. Sturdy, however, said he is optimistic that everything will work out. He said that the RCMP and Live Nation have taken steps to ensure that there won’t be a lot of criminal behaviour.

      “I expect that there is going to be some traffic challenges,” he commented. “You bring that many people up here, it’s not a big surprise. I think that is inconvenience more than anything else.”

      Meanwhile, back at the museum, Madigan said she wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of visitors there over the weekend because it’s the only real public space in town with public washrooms and running water. Asked if there are any performers she would like to see drop by for a visit, she replied, “I’m holding out for Tom Petty. But I’m not sure if Tom will come by the museum.”

      Even if he doesn't show up in person, his presence will be enough to create a modern-day equivalent of the gold rush that the museum, in some of its exhibits, has tried so hard to preserve.