Hope’s revival, from bust to boom and a future so bright

Written By Geoff Russ

“They’re loving life. Five years before the pandemic, they would never have thought they’d be doing that here,” says Victor Smith, Hope Chamber of Commerce president.

Construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project through British Columbia has been tumultuous and controversial, but for the people in the District of Hope, it may be a godsend.

The Trans Mountain project has met heavy resistance – anti-pipeline occupations on the project’s route and failed litigation from the provincial government to stop it – while going massively over-budget. 

However, for many residents of Hope, a community about 120 kilometres east of Vancouver, the pipeline has helped spur a revival after years of economic and population decline. 

“It opened up a lot of new opportunities that the business community never thought would ever be (possible).”

Victor Smith

The town of less than 7,000 people has been reinvigorated through a combination of Trans Mountain’s presence and a surge of new residents fleeing Vancouver’s high cost of living.

A junction town

Sitting at the southern end of the Fraser Valley, Hope marks the border between the Lower Mainland and the Interior. Surrounded by mountains on nearly all sides, the town is at the confluence of two rivers (the Fraser and Coquihalla) and three highways (Highways 1, 3 and 5). A junction of passenger and freight traffic, thousands of vehicles pass by Hope each day. Many drivers stop for coffee, gas, a meal, or to stay the night in one of the town’s many accommodations. 

In 2018, CBC published a story on Hope’s aspirations to be more than a pit-stop on the highway for people travelling to and from Vancouver. Local residents expressed optimism for the future, stating younger people had begun moving to Hope again. 

Then, in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Yet, while some communities across Canada staggered under the burden of public health restrictions and business closures, Hope’s economy grew, as did its population. 

Early Hope economics

Located on the lands of the Sto:lo people, Fort Hope was established as a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post in 1848. The community got an early taste of being rest-stop as fortune-seekers passed through the growing town during the gold rushes of the 1850s and 60s.

The Canadian National Railway built a station in Hope in 1916 and with that came the resource industries. Host to many logging mills and mining companies over the years, the town became an important hub in the Fraser Valley’s economic and agricultural development. 

During World War II, the Tashme Japanese internment camp operated nearby, holding more than 2,600 people at one time.

After the war ended, the town benefited from a provincial strategy to “open up inland B.C.,” which included building the Alcan aluminum smelter in Kitimat, granting forest management licences in the Interior, and constructing the Hope-Princeton Highway.

The local economy shifted from being resourced-based to services dependent.

The region thrived in the latter half of the 20th century. Then, like many smaller B.C. communities during a period of provincial economic decline in the 1970s and 80s, Hope suffered setbacks in its natural resource sectors. Many jobs were lost and the local economy shifted from being resourced-based to services dependent. Between 1996 to 2009, Hope’s population dropped from 6,247 in 1996 to 5,969 in 2011, while the rest of the province grew by 675,557.

According to a 2013 report, lack of opportunities in Hope altered its demographics, as it became less attractive to young, working families, and more appealing to the retirement set. In 2016, barely half of Hope’s population participated in the workforce and unemployment sat at 11 per cent. The median age in Hope is still high at 55 years, compared to the national median age of 41. 

While mining and logging companies continue to operate in the Hope region, their community presence and economic impact are far from their heyday. Hospitality, transportation, the restaurant industry, and a Nestlé water plant are among the main sources of employment in Hope.

Then, a decade ago, Trans Mountain came calling. 

Pipeline brings prosperity to Hope

Engagement between Trans Mountain and Hope’s local government began in 2012. Running 1,150 kilometres from Edmonton, AB., to Burnaby, the $21.4 billion pipeline expansion will pass right by Hope. 

Trans Mountain pipeline twinning project route. [Image courtesy of Trans Mountain]

In 2018, the company began physical work in the area, setting up a stockpile site approximately 16 kilometres south of Hope along Highway 1. Throughout 2020, when other businesses were closed or reduced during the pandemic, pipeline operations proliferated.

George Rice is the property manager of Hope Inn & Suites, a motel located alongside several other accommodations on Old Princeton Way, a street that serves as Hope’s largest hospitality hub. Typically, winter months are slow, but in 2020 in Hope, business boomed. At Hope Inn & Suites, Trans Mountain workers filled the rooms, often renting for months at a time. 

“We were essentially running close to full all the time.”

George Rice

“Basically, starting last summer and into the fall, we were essentially running close to full all the time, right through the winter. Which is a huge change over the traditional Hope motel winter pattern,” said Rice. 

Once COVID restrictions eased, Rice had an unusual challenge – Hope Inn & Suites had to find creative ways to restrict the number of pipeline workers renting rooms in order to retain space for the regular tourist crowd. 

Trans Mountain workers will be missed when they leave Hope, conceded Rice. But their presence has also had other unintended consequences. The company employs a significant portion of Hope’s workforce, and pays more than many local businesses can afford, which is straining the town’s limited labour market, Rice said. 

Despite the depleted local workforce, local businesses have enjoyed the patronage of the new customers, said Victor Smith, town councillor and Hope Chamber of Commerce president. “The business community is trying to step up and get the most out of it.”

Smith isn’t worried about the eventual departure of the pipeline workers. New residents will replace them, he said. 

Lower costs lure newcomers

Compared to cities like Vancouver, one of the world’s most expensive places to live, Hope is an attractive destination. 

“Real estate is good…our prices are lower here,” said Smith, who is running for mayor in the upcoming municipal elections. Even with Hope housing prices up by more than 33 per cent over last year, costs are still dramatically lower than in Vancouver or its suburbs.

“Real estate is good…our prices are lower here.”

Victor Smith

While there isn’t enough new housing construction to meet the demand of newcomers – which hotel manager Rice partially blames on speculators buying up property to rent out separate rooms – purchasing an existing house in Hope is a bargain by comparison. 

A four-bedroom house in Hope can be had for $620,000, compared to a similar house in a Vancouver suburb like Burnaby, which can cost almost $1,700,000

Besides the drop in living expenses, Smith said many new residents seek the small-town lifestyle, being able to work from home and easily walk to and from downtown Hope. 

“They’re loving life. Five years before the pandemic, they would never have thought they’d be doing that here – like, never,” said Smith. “It opened up a lot of new opportunities that the business community never thought would ever be (possible).”

“I’ve seen some changing faces.” 

Kris Enns

Kris Enns, the owner and operator of Nuway Traders, a pawn and game shop in Hope, said while there were disruptions during the pandemic, business was still good, and he’s noticed new residents coming into the shop. 

“It’s been pretty decent… I mean, 2020 was a weird one for everybody,” Enns said. Nuway hosts weekly table-top game nights: “I’ve seen some changing faces.” 

Pipeline workers pitched in

Smith said Hope’s new residents have also been getting involved with local volunteer groups and integrating into the community. Trans Mountain workers have shared their time and expertise with community too, particularly during the 2021 natural disasters. When a wildfire broke out near Hope last summer, roughly 80 pipeline workers were on-hand to assist in battling the flames. 

“They’re heavy equipment operators, and they actually had water trucks for whatever reason,” said Rice. “It could have been really scary.” 

When the Fraser Valley experienced flooding later in the fall that damaged the Coquihalla Highway, the pipeline crews were again on-hand to help with repairs

“That’s how the Coquihalla got fixed so fast there,” said Rice. “They stopped work on the pipeline and those companies immediately picked up and started working, repairing the damage.”

“They stopped work on the pipeline and … immediately picked up and started working, repairing the damage.”

George Rice

Trans Mountain workers have contributed to various community initiatives in the Hope area, doing such things as supporting local families, donating recycling, and bringing treats to seniors, a company representative wrote in an emailed response for comment. “The team enjoys giving back in many ways.”

Trans Mountain workers practice emergency spill clean-up exercises in 2021 with community members from Hope and local First Nations. [Image capture Trans Mountain YouTube]

The representative said a highlight of Trans Mountain’s time in Hope was its partnership with local Indigenous communities like the Chawathil First Nation. Last August, Trans Mountain partnered with the nation to upgrade the Chawathil-run Telte Yet Campsite, located on the banks of the Fraser River, within walking distance of downtown Hope. The Chawathil First Nation could not be reached for comment.

Even though many Trans Mountain employees and contractors will depart when work on the pipeline construction is complete, some permanent staff will remain in Hope, the company representative said.

Reversing the trend

As it stands now, in stark contrast to years past, the town’s population increased more than the province, at 8.2 per cent versus 7.6 per cent respectively. Now, 6,686 people call Hope home, firmly reversing its trend of population decline. Whether that trend will hold after Trans Mountain construction operations are complete, remains to be seen. 

“We’re almost like a company town. Most economic activities are geared towards the big companies that are in town,” said Rice. “There’s three or four of them associated with the pipeline, and once they leave, things are going to slow down.” 

Despite the inevitable departure of many Trans Mountain workers, increases in the costs of housing, and a possible economic downturn as Canadian interest rates rise, Smith is optimistic about what’s in store for Hope. 

“We’ve had a good two-year run here, so we will make sure that this just (makes itself) good and sound,” said Smith. “You don’t know what the future is bringing.”