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It is one of B.C.’s oldest communities. Yet, until only recently, it was one of its most isolated. An early supply depot for the gold-seekers pouring into the interior of the province in the 1860s, the sleepy little village of Pemberton didn’t get road access to Vancouver for another century. True, the community has benefited from rail service since 1915, but the highway that was finally pushed through the Coast Range in 1965 to link Whistler Mountain to the rest of the world took another seven years to span the 23 remaining miles north to Pemberton. And even then, the village was considered a long way from anywhere. Settled mostly by farmers and loggers, Pemberton remained in a state of suspended animation. A beautiful place to visit, no question about it, but somehow disconnected from the hustle and bustle of 20th-century life.
Didn’t matter that the Interior Salish-to which the local Mount Currie tribe belongs-first populated the region some 10,000 years earlier. Didn’t matter that Pemberton stands on the threshold of some of the most accessible-yet wild-mountain country in the world. Or even that the valley itself produces some of the finest seed potatoes on the planet. Pemberton was still considered too far off the beaten track to become a full-fledged member of modern B.C.
All that’s changed now. Barely a half-hour’s drive from one of the world’s most successful mountain resorts, Pemberton is finally coming into its own. And-as if to make up for lost time-it’s moving fast. “When I was first elected to council in 1993, there were 323 people living here,” says Pemberton Mayor Elinor Warner. “Now, we have nearly 2,000.” According to provincial statistics, it’s the fastest-growing community in B.C. “In fact, the village is growing so fast that we’re quickly running out of inventory.”
vThe scenery has indeed changed here in recent years. The old, mostly hand-built farmhouses that once dotted the scenery are now giving way to urban-style developments and modern family homes. It’s not hard to understand why. Located in the stunningly beautiful Lillooet River Valley-surrounded by soaring peaks and majestic stands of conifers-Pemberton is like a precious jewel that was forgotten in somebody’s treasure chest for too long. And now everybody wants a piece of it. Designated an official “Gateway to the Backcountry” by the provincial government (along with only seven other B.C. communities), Pemberton is also an adrenaline-sports junkie’s paradise. There’s paragliding, mountain biking, paddling-even a local heli-skiing operation. “The place never ceases to amaze me,” says longtime resident Eric Pehota. One of the country’s foremost big-mountain adventurers, Pehota has been hard at work building a home in Pemberton for the past two years. “It’s a great place to bring up kids,” says the father of two boys. “There’s a real community feeling here, yet nature is right in your backyard. I mean, we still have grizzly bears cruising through the property in spring and fall.”
Pemberton’s triple-digit growth rate isn’t about to change any time soon. As real estate prices in Whistler become increasingly intolerable-topping $1 million for a single-family home-Pemberton is fast becoming the mountain community of choice for all but the truly wealthy. “I knew that if I were going to own my own home, it would never be at Whistler,” says extreme-skiing champion Hugo Harrison. “Fortunately, I was able to find a small ‘fixer-upper’ in Pemberton that I could afford. Now it doesn’t matter what happens to Whistler. I’m set for life.”
Harrison and Pehota are not alone. During the past five or six years, there’s been a northward migration-a stampede, even-of young Whistler families who have brought a new wave of prosperity to Pemberton. “The quality of life has changed dramatically at Whistler in recent years,” says former Whistler mayor Drew Meredith, who now lives in a beautifully renovated heritage farmhouse just outside off Pemberton. “In a lot of ways, over-development has killed the very thing that attracted us to the place 30 years ago. Fortunately, you can still experience that lifestyle in Pemberton.”
Mayor Warner couldn’t agree more. “We’re attracting a lot of young families who really like our rural setting,” she says. “And they’re willing to get personally involved to protect it.” But she admits the town also needs more commercial development to bring in jobs and money. “Our biggest drawback is that residential development doesn’t bring much in taxes.
Although we’re growing by leaps and bounds, finding the funds to pay for community centers and other such amenities is amazingly difficult. We badly need infrastructure here, and I’d encourage adventurous developers to come to Pemberton.” An unabashed town booster? “It’s part of my job,” she counters, making no bones about promoting the place. “We’re open for business,” she says flatly.
It is estimated that as many as 10 percent of Whistler employees now live in the Pemberton area. And the morning and evening “commutes” during peak season can be trying-particularly when the weather is stormy. Most Pemberton locals, however, say the trade-offs are worth it. “The commute is not that big a deal,” says Jenn Ashton, another extreme skiing star. “It takes about the same time as reading your morning paper.”
Until only a few years ago, owning a car was absolutely mandatory if you lived in Pemberton. Now there is regular bus service to and from Whistler, running up to six times per day during the busiest times of the year. But while Whistler is increasingly dependent on its rural neighbor to solve its housing shortage, residents of Pemberton aren’t quite so sanguine about the relationship. In fact, the perception that the town has a “subservient” relationship to the resort down the road is the subject that most irks the up-tempo Pemberton mayor. “We’re not just a bedroom community for Whistler,” Warner says. “Never have been. Never will be. We’re fortunate in that we have a very passionate group of residents working to protect the unique nature of the Pemberton Valley. And we’re pretty firm in sticking to our mission statement.”
There are six fundamental goals to which Warner and her council have committed themselves for the next few years: “We need to manage growth, protect the environment, protect the unique character of the village, improve opportunities for recreation, develop municipal services and develop new business models suited to Pemberton.”
One such project that Mayor Warner is particularly excited about is the proposed $500 million Cayuse Mountain Resort development, about an hour’s drive northeast of Pemberton. Although now mired in a legal battle with native bands opposed to the project, the ski resort could well be the last piece in the puzzle that propels Pemberton into the 21st century. “It would have a tremendous impact on our economy,” says Warner. “After all, we’d be the only community between two major destination ski areas.”
Still, there’s a lot of groundwork to be covered before the Cayuse project is even approved for development. Meanwhile, Pemberton continues to attract the young and adventurous to its idyllic setting in the Coast Mountains. And gauging from the steady stream of families migrating north from Whistler, that source doesn’t seem to be in danger of drying up anytime soon.
The Pemberton Valley produces about 13 million pounds of seed potatoes annually, enough to plant about 8,000 acres of table (eating) potatoes with the potential to produce about 300 million pounds of potatoes for North Americans to eat.