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Community forum discusses employee housing in Canmore

“I love community engagement. … I talk to business owners and constituents and anyone who lives here every day. Events like this where I know my opinion isn’t the popular one in the room is great to come to. I want to hear and know what they’re thinking and do my best to implement a shared vision.

CANMORE – Trent Pipson came to Canmore from Australia eight years ago to experience the mountains, snowboard and live in a smaller community.

His first place was a basement suite before living with his girlfriend in a house for six years until it was sold. They were able to purchase their own home above a second floor mixed-use building on Industrial Place – also known as iPlace –  situated above various businesses.

“I’ve been pretty lucky. It was a stress when our rental house sold since we were there for six years and it was home,” he said of living in a light industrial area. “We were lucky for the timing to snap up a place in iPlace. It’s smaller, but we learned to live around it and it’s no problem now.”

As friends have been forced to leave the community for Cochrane because of the cost of living, he said their spot at iPlace has allowed them to save money and potentially upgrade to a larger place in the future and continue living in Canmore.

“When you’re renting, you always have something in the back of your mind about your place selling. We don’t have that, so it’s lifted off us,” he said. “We’re actually looking at a place and upgrading to another place. We wouldn’t have been able to do this without iPlace. From there, you can upgrade. I always heard about it, but didn’t think much of it.”

Pipson was one of four people on the panel for a forum put together by the Canmore Business Alliance on the potential of employee housing in Canmore’s light industrial area, with roughly 60 people attending.

The polarizing topic has become a community-wide discussion and it will return for council direction at the upcoming Sept. 5 meeting.

Postponed twice in both June and July, Town staff are recommending changes be made to the land use bylaw and Municipal Development Plan to discourage employee housing in light industrial areas. An alternative motion that could be considered would direct Town staff to return with potential options for allowing employee housing in an area such as Bow Meadows Crescent.

Mayor Sean Krausert said hearing from a diverse group of residents is important for elected officials when making decisions that have an impact on locals – whether they’re new or long-term.

“I think it’s important councillors and members of administration hear things like this,” he said. “Our decisions have to be made in the best interest of the community as a whole, so I will be including this as part of my decision-making on Sept. 5. … It’s very important to have a variety of forums in which we can get different points of view.”

First-term Coun. Wade Graham, who has previously voiced opposition to having employee housing in light industrial areas, said it’s important to hear as many diverse opinions as possible.

“I love community engagement. … I talk to business owners and constituents and anyone who lives here every day. Events like this where I know my opinion isn’t the popular one in the room is great to come to,” he said. “I want to hear and know what they’re thinking and do my best to implement a shared vision.

“We have a serious problem that needs to be meaningfully addressed and we’re looking at a myriad of solutions and if this idea is one of the ones we should implement. … Council needs to have the 10,000-foot view.”

Coun. Tanya Foubert said with housing being the most pressing issue in the community, it’s a topic that can impact everyone from individuals to businesses.

“Our housing situation only seems to get worse and people naturally seek out solutions to problems,” she said. “I heard a lot of people speaking in favour of this as one of the solutions they’d like to see and I think that’s important since the more we all discuss solutions as a community and we actually understand the problems and the complexity, the better the results are going to be.

“I truly believe on both sides of this there are really valid points. This isn’t about being right, but getting it right.”

Harrison Wolfe, general manager of Wolfe Canmore and one of the panellists, called the housing situation a “state of emergency” and highlighted the difficulty in hiring and retaining staff because the high demand for accommodations was “next to impossible.”

Town staff have noted light industrial areas lack amenities, sidewalks, bike lanes, are distant from garbage and recycling, the potential for the units to be used as Airbnbs but most significantly it would lead to the loss of potential commercial and industrial space.

With the vacancy rate hovering at or below one per cent, Town staff have highlighted the potential loss of economic diversification if such land uses are switched to employee housing.

In addition, the much-discussed Palliser area structure plan is set for first reading Sept. 5 and is proposing up to 1,300 new homes, including roughly 1,000 units of affordable housing.

Two of the previously approved employee housing projects at 121 and 127 Bow Meadows Cres. were done so by the council-appointed Canmore Planning Commission and Subdivision and Development Appeal Board.

Prior to 127 Bow Meadows Cres. getting the OK earlier this year for two employee housing units, Steve Ashton, president and CEO of Ashton Construction Services, who was contracted for work at both sites, said he went to all businesses in the area in preparation to gauge support.

He listed off 23 businesses that gave formal or informal support and only ran into one business owner who voiced opposition to employee housing in the Bow Meadows area.

“That’s a significant amount of businesses. They’re all people I know and respect. If this goes the wrong way, there’ll be a community association that’s formed and I’ll chair it to represent our property rights in Bow Meadows,” he said.

Ashton, who was the former chair of Canmore Community Housing, emphasized the need for all options to be looked at when it comes to housing.

“I explained to different councillors that until Palliser paradise is built, which sounds like a great plan but will take many years to do, until that point we should be looking at these spots,” he said. “It’s similar to Calgary using unused downtown office space. It’s not ideal or perfect, but people don’t mind if it keeps them here to live the Canmore life.”

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