Stay Unique to Stay Relevant

The following is adapted from a speech made to the Banff Town Council during a public hearing concerning Bylaw 314. January 31, 2013.

For twenty-five years, my family has been property owners in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I spend year after year in the Tetons, on the Snake, in the ski village, in the town square. I watched the airport go from a one room terminal welcoming small propeller planes and arrivals with nothing more than a cowboy hat and a saddle coming off the luggage cart, to an expansive glass enclosed series of lounges, gates and cafes. I watched the town square morph from one-off stores that I had never seen anywhere other than Jackson to familiar, if unwelcomed, names. I watched a three traffic light cowboy town dotted with cattle and horse ranches between town and the mountain fill the main thoroughfare with McDonald’s and Wendy’s. The ski mountain is still the mountain, but where blue jeans and Carhartt jackets once dominated, I now see fur coats and Bogner boots.

I am not opposed to progress, but having lived and worked in Jackson as an architect after graduating from university, I know rents and home prices are high and wages are low. Friends and colleagues from my time in Jackson still live there and struggle to make ends meet. These are people who are local business owners and teachers, people who are stewards of the community, people who are living in, as the local radio station proclaims, “poverty with a view.”

While surely a different place, the similarities to Banff are numerous. The mountains, the proximity to national parks and protected lands, the endless recreation in both warm weather and cold weather, a small but dedicated population focused on quality of life. And, of course, the breathtaking beauty.

These unique characteristics provide both opportunities and challenges. Preservation of natural landscapes through national parks is honorable and preserves the image of a place, but it also severely constrains the supply of land, which leads to higher prices and magnifies the importance of making informed long-term decisions.

Resort communities are destinations and escapes that people flock to for the experience and lifestyle they provide. Whether it be a ski vacation, a wildlife tour, a hiking excursion or the like, both residents and visitors expect a certain experience based upon a specific image, whether real or perceived. Workers who are full-time residents are also drawn to the place for the same reason, but must often learn to survive on limited means in an expensive environment.

Mountain towns, like other small towns, strive to create, maintain and foster identity through placemaking. It is a bastardized term, but conveys a goal. Everywhere wants to be a “place” – for tourists, businesspeople, shoppers, residents or otherwise. Everywhere wants to have an identity that invokes positive memories and experiences. But not everywhere has the resources to make it happen, whether those resources are money, human capital, political will or physical stamina. But, as small towns continue their evolution, they are growing more proactive in making places that improve the quality of life for residents, workers and visitors.

But a Starbucks does not a place make.

The downtowns of smaller towns and villages are truly the central business districts where much of the activity is focused. These towns need to become aggressive in creating unique identities to breed civic pride and create real “places” and experiences. And, different from their suburban or larger urban counterparts, the smaller scale of these smaller towns permits the public sector to take a more active role, as opposed to struggling to create a framework and hoping the private sector will build and include provisions of that framework in to their development plans.

Although bigger cities have significant political and financial muscle behind them, and individual “placemaking” projects have private interests guiding them, small towns with a real downtown core need not be left behind when it comes to creating desirable venues for living, working and playing. In these trying economic times, and with severely limited municipal budgets, there is still a need to focus on economic development and long-term viability and quality of life. If the public sector leads the way with clear direction and commitments to the community, as well as sound urban design principles and a cohesive strategy and framework, a true “place” can be created to improve quality of life for local residents and workers and attract others with a shared idea of identity.

Identity is crucial. Maintaining a unique environment is crucial. Lining your streets with the same retailers as any other place or mall will not preserve that character. The common theme here is unique experience. Make Banff no place other than Banff.

Unique experiences. Not conventional resorts.

Successful resort communities take advantage of their natural surroundings and the unique aspects of the land itself. This includes history, culture and local traditions that attracted people in the first place. Focusing on experiences, with education, environmental, health, cultural, and historical influences, celebrates the context and natural setting and creates truly one-of-a-kind locations that drive value.

The collective experience maximizes value.

Scarcity and differentiation still drive value creation, more so now than in the past. Combining concentrations of activity and accommodations forms a density of experiences. Truly unique environments, where the experience is defined by the natural setting creating distinctive places with a strong sense of community, still command premiums.

Distinctive experiences command premiums.

Arguments for chains center on economic development and prosperity. For whom? Chain stores pay higher rents, which benefits landlords, not communities. And, studies have shown that chain stores create fewer jobs at lower wages. This is due to accomplishing the same sales volume with fewer workers. And, they do not spend nearly as much with local suppliers and service providers as independent merchants do. Chain stores also erode character, which erodes experience, which can erode visitor numbers. Economic development in Banff relies on these visitor numbers. Allowing unregulated chain stores can set in motion a series of events that you simply do not want as a community and can not afford.

If tourism is your greatest economic generator, why turn yourself in to a generic destination?

Keep the community unique. That, and that alone, is your greatest competitive advantage in a world that continues to gravitate towards sameness and ubiquity. Stay unique.