by Rachel Walker
Each winter, Monday through Thursday, at Sun Peaks Resort in British Columbia, a passel of kids don ski boots and helmets to ride the Platter Lift to learn…the alphabet. At least the kindergarteners learn their As and Bs. The others—first through 12th graders—study age-appropriate subjects. What they have in common, though, is how they get to school.
The kids ride the lift because it’s the only way to the tiny Sun Peaks Elementary School. Once inside, they fidget through the hours like typical school kids. “They’re incredibly independent and curious,” says Barb Kupferschmidt Linder, president of the Sun Peaks Education Society. But they also love the freedom that comes when the bell rings and they wiggle into snowsuits and fulfill their physical education requirement by arcing turns. Later, they’ll bomb downhill to their parents, who’ve come to collect them from jobs across Sun Peaks Village. The happy families retire to homes clustered throughout the resort.
To any onlooker who’s dreamed of living at a ski hill, the scene is a paradise. But as anyone who’s lived long enough also knows, mountain town paradises die. Just look at Nelson, British Columbia, once the remote outpost of dodge drafters, hardcore skiers, and artists. Nowadays, it’s home base for a flood of “urban refugees, increasingly priced out of cities like Vancouver,” reports The New York Times. Nelson’s problems aren’t unique. Crested Butte residents sleep in cars to stay in their beloved valley; year-round workers commute an hour-plus from Vail to Leadville; and Aspen employees regularly clog the highway from Glenwood Springs for service jobs that barely fund their beer habit, let alone rent.
Sun Peaks hasn’t gotten there yet. But it faces the same threat in the form of skyrocketing real estate prices. This year, the average price of a single family Sun Peaks home increased to more than CAD $700,000, up 63 percent from the same period last year. In 2014, the average price of a single-family home here was only CAD $183,967.
Will Sun Peaks go the way of Nelson, Aspen, and Vail, with seasonal workers forced to make long commutes on bad roads while vacation homes sit empty and the community shatters? Not if the people who matter most—those living in the remote, idyllic valley, like Nancy Greene and Al Raines—have their way.
Greene and her husband Raines came to Sun Peaks in 1995 after 25 years in Whistler. The Japanese corporation Nippon Cable had purchased Tod Mountain and execs recruited Greene and Raines to help transform the sleepy hill into an international destination rebranded as Sun Peaks. Canada’s most famous skier, Olympic Gold Medalist Greene is a national icon. And Raines, one of the original visionaries of Whistler Village, understood the inner workings of development. The couple agreed with one caveat: Greene had to like the skiing. Her reconnaissance trip revealed more than 4,000 acres of potential terrain that flowed into a central village site.
Nippon drafted an impressive master plan that included slopeside hotels and condos for visitors—and few housing options for year-round employees. But the intrepid folks migrating to Sun Peaks wanted to live at the mountain. They built homes at or near the base, and before long, an intimate community had formed. Many of the roughly 200 full-time residents dreamed of staying forever.
To do so, in June 2010, they created a municipality to give governance to the local community, says Raines. The other key was ownership: About $500 million had been invested in the resort and village of Sun Peaks from 1995-2000—one fifth came from Nippon Cable, the remainder from the community.
“We realized that we had more money invested than Nippon, so why couldn’t we call the shots?” says Raines. The municipality did indeed give the newly formed town of Sun Peak access to money and services. Local government also allowed it to fund Sun Peaks Elementary School (which opened in 2010). And the school proved to be a huge draw for families, who now make up “the backbone of the community,” says Raines.
Since the Great Recession, the village at Sun Peaks has grown to 550 year-round residents. But now Sun Peaks attracts not just skiers, but retirees and telecommuters, says Greene. Raines says that finding a balance between supply and demand, while trying to welcome lower income families in the service industry, is no easy task.
Cindy Houben, Pitkin County, Colorado, community development director since 1995, says Sun Peaks would do well to thoroughly consider how it wants to grow. “Aspen really took off and became world class, but that growth mentality created issues three decades ago that are still dominating headlines,” she says. She warns that Sun Peaks should “put land away now … before it becomes too controversial.”
Don Elliott of Denver-based Clarion Consulting echoes that advice. Since land is the ultimate asset in tourist communities, he says, creating systems to pay for, manage, and ultimately make it available for deed-restricted development would be his top priority. “Resort towns cannot exist without subsidized housing,” he says. “Not if you want firemen to be on call and teachers to be part of the community.”
To date, Sun Peaks has roughly 400 employee-housing units and about 80 “in-law” suites zoned exclusively for resident employees. The municipality is forming a housing authority to address the needs of seasonal employees, and non-market housing for family and resident employees. And officials are currently forming regulations that will require all new development to provide affordable or employee housing. They’ll need to move fast. Within 10 years, the town’s population is expected to grow from 550 to 1,250. But a ballooning seasonal winter population surpassing 1,000 residents could happen sooner.
Back on the hill with the grade school kids, it’s Friday, which means that school’s closed in Sun Peaks. Some children head to ski school for discounted lessons. An older group of kids huff their way up Gil’s Hike to ski untracked in the 500 acres of controlled backcountry terrain that opened in 2014. They’ll ski until their parents—the lucky ones who got to Sun Peaks early—call them home to paradise. If other generations of working class kids are to follow, it will be up to Greene, Raines, and the Sun Peaks community to get the planning right—and quick.