Amenity Man

🕔Nov 19, 2007

Ray Chipeniuk’s driveway winds its way uphill through the forest to his house perched on a bench on the west side of the Bulkley Valley, midway between Telkwa and Smithers. From his living room one has a clear view northward, to the Hudson Bay Mountain massif with ski runs striating its slopes, and the Brian Boru range on the horizon. It’s late fall and the white snow on the peaks, the brilliant sky and the flame of golden aspens paint a canvas of bucolic perfection.
It is fitting that Chipeniuk would choose a place like this. After all, he has spent a good deal of the past decade studying the people such a landscape attracts: people who relocate for aesthetic reasons rather than economic ones. In academic circles, this phenomenon is known as “amenity migration.”
Ray is driving a small tractor around his place when I arrive, but jumps off and strides toward me, hand outstretched. He is tall and lanky, wearing a brown Carhartt shirt and jeans. At a youthful 60, his red beard is showing some grey, and his moustache is doing a poor job of hiding a smile that omnipresent except when he’s deep in professorial mode.
After a quick tour of his property, we retire to his living room with a couple of icy beers, and he fills me in on his field of study.

Back to the country
Amenity migration, he tells me, started with American demographers in the late 1970s and early 80s, an era marked by a back-to-the-land movement in both the US and Canada. They noticed that for the first time in the history of the US census, a larger proportion of the population was moving from cities to rural areas rather than vice versa.
“It appeared something really quite extraordinary was going on. People were moving in large numbers to parts of the US where every indication was that there should be low employment, largely due to collapses in natural resource industries,” he recounts.
The same thing was happening in Canada, with the first waves of people settling in places like the Bulkley Valley in search of alternatives to urban lifestyles. This first wave of amenity migrants helped shape the Valley’s sociopolitical landscape, and with the exception of a brief reversal in the 1980s, was part of a trend that took off in the 1990s and continues to build momentum today.
“When you have beautiful landscapes, people—particularly young people—will move to such places, perhaps bringing a business, sometimes moving to the place first then starting a business. Some will have occupations which don’t require that they live in any specific place.”

Ray’s study
In 2002, Chipeniuk, then a professor in the environmental planning program at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, began work to measure amenity migration in the Bulkley Valley.
He conducted a comprehensive valley-wide survey, which showed amenity migrants to be a growing demographic, comprising as much as 30 percent of the population and constituting an important economic engine.
“People who bring their incomes with them constitute an engine of economic activity that is essentially an export industry; it’s exactly analogous to people receiving paychecks because they send out lumber or minerals. The money gets sent here and gets spent here. It has an economic multiplier that is surprisingly high—sometimes their spending can produce as much as two jobs for every amenity migrant.”
Despite having studied amenity migration for over ten years, or perhaps because of it, Chipeniuk resists defining the amenity migrant as an archetype.
“I’ve become adverse to thinking of amenity migration in broad generalizations. I really think it varies among locations,” he cautions.
But he does point out some characteristics that many amenity migrants have in common. For instance, they tend to be quite highly educated, and many of them are professionals. And many are, as he says somewhat academically, “deeply engaged by outdoor recreation,” and “attracted by the youth culture here—the music culture which is very rich and active.”
Recently, the Bulkley Valley has attracted a significant number of amenity migrants who work in the mining industry, commuting by air to locations as distant as Indonesia.
Surprisingly though, given their education, Chipeniuk’s work shows that, on average, amenity migrants in the Valley are not financially better off than the economic migrants (people who move to a place for work), or native-born residents. “I imagine the explanation is that many of the amenity migrants are young people,” he says.

Community dynamics
I ask him how the juxtaposition of amenity migrants and people born and raised locally affects the local politic.
“It does create a dynamic, for sure,” he admits. “There is a tendency for the representatives in the local government to be people who were economic migrants originally, or who were born and raised here. And because they tend to be older men, they often find it difficult to believe in this invisible economic engine of amenity migration. So they are strongly inclined to try to entice or support even quite destructive resource development when it offers itself.”
If there’s a division between the born-and-raised and the amenity migrants, it surfaces in response to this type of development proposal—recent examples of which have ranged from a coalbed methane gas field to big-box-retail rezoning on the edge of town.
“Because a component of the amenity migrant population is made up of people who are well educated in the natural sciences—many of them consultants—they’re often quite demanding in relation to proposals for development. Without doubt there is some tension between elements of each of these two groups,” he reflects, quickly adding, “But to my mind, the Bulkley Valley is pretty remarkable for the civility of public debate.”
This tension is complicated by the fact that local representatives also recognize that amenity migration is a critical antidote to a crisis hitting many rural BC communities: population loss.
“I think on the whole our representatives …understand the dangers of shrinking populations in small communities, so they’ve always been quite receptive to the argument that amenity migration is something that should be occurring,” says Chipeniuk.
He cites Statistics Canada’s 2006 census, which showed the population of many northern communities had declined precipitously, the worst being Kitimat which lost 12.6 percent of its population between 2001 and 2006.
“Population loss can be quite catastrophic for a community. I think this has had the effect of motivating local government representatives to take an interest in amenity migration,” he says. “They see the potential for benefits but at the same time they don’t want to do things that strike them as contrary to the very way of life they grew up with.”

Pros and cons
Tensions exist, to be sure, but amenity migration would appear to be a net positive. It brings money into the community, takes pressure off resources, and buffers the boom-and-bust cycles endemic in rural communities.
If amenity migration has a dark side, it’s what can happen when a place becomes simply too popular among amenity migrants. To illustrate this, Chipeniuk brings up Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a picturesque mountain ski town where amenity migration has been around for more than three decades.
“The cliché is that the billionaires have driven out the millionaires,” he says, “When a place develops a reputation, the wealthier amenity migrants can start to drive out those who came with lower incomes—the younger people. That seems to me to be a very unhealthy aspect of the phenomenon.”
Not only can amenity migration drive up prices, it can start eroding the cultural amenities that attracted people to a place to begin with.
“People apply a sense of naturalness to social relations as much as landscapes,” says Chipeniuk. “Places like McBride and Smithers are seen as being ‘natural communities’ where all walks of life interact in a natural way. One thing people find distasteful about places like Jackson Hole is a lack of diversity.”
So, is the Bulkley Valley on the same trajectory as Jackson Hole—or, closer to home, Canmore, Fernie or even Revelstoke? Chipeniuk says he’s starting to see the signs.
“The number of amenity migrants with more-than-ample means is starting to create difficulties for younger ones. I’ve spoken to some who are moving because they can’t find housing.”

Slow growth
He attributes Smithers’ relatively slow development to its remoteness: “Smithers and the Bulkley Valley are so remote from the much-traveled Trans-Canada Highway communities …that this area was largely unknown to people with money. I think Smithers and the Bulkley Valley in earlier times looked rougher to wealthy people who were potential amenity migrants.”
Standing outside his house, looking over the Valley, we reflect on Smithers’ climb as an amenity migration destination, which seems to be accelerating. The local paper just reported a jump in real estate prices; a corporation with ambitious resort plans has purchased the ski hill; and work has begun on expanding the Smithers airport to accommodate larger jets.
Ironically, Chipeniuk says he once worried Smithers would succumb to the economic tailspin that has affected other small, rural communities. Today, few see this as likely, or even possible. On the contrary, it’s the other end of the spectrum—the Jackson Hole syndrome, or a smaller version thereof—that now looks like the more realistic scenario.
Such growth could create a strong constituency for protecting the natural environment that makes Smithers a sought-after destination in the first place. At the same time, it could erode both the community’s cultural fabric and the affordability of the community for younger people.
Chipeniuk says we don’t necessarily get to choose.
“The fate of communities is only to a very limited extent under the control of the people who live in them,” he says. “Even if you had a local government that wanted to limit development to what a community could handle, many things would go on that would be out of their control.”