Search for B.C.'s Best Small Town: Championship semifinals

·4 min read
 (CBC News - image credit)
(CBC News - image credit)

The story of Lillooet is a lot like the story of British Columbia.

It's a journey of the St'át'imc people inhabiting lands next to the Fraser River for centuries before settlers in search of gold showed up in the thousands.

A town that embraced resource extraction, railway development, heritage tourism and recreation opportunities over the decades, searching for new ways to attract people and dollars.

It's a place surrounded by beauty and inequality, a town with both a closed down legion on Main Street and bustling coffee shops and cideries, a few thousand people putting their generation's new layer on what defines Lillooet.

"That's what makes this community so passionate and so tight, is that everyone is here to pursue their dreams," said Rolf de Bruin, co-owner of Fort Berens winery in Lillooet.

He immigrated to B.C. from Holland in 2005, searching for a place to put a winery. The Okanagan was the obvious first choice, but he found it "too urbanized" and found a new plan after taking Highway 12 up the Fraser Canyon.

"I remember looking at these mountains and being like, Oh, this is so Canadian. And so we drove up here and yeah, it really grabbed our hearts," he said.

"Being the first winery in this region has been quite pioneering, but the support from the local community has been amazing."

Lillooet requires a long drive through sometimes treacherous highways to get to. Coun. Jennifer Leach said the town's relative isolation provides much of its appeal and challenges.

"With our geography, we're at the tail end of the Sea to Sky, we're at the tail end of the Thompson Nicola Regional District, we're at the tail end of the Cariboo. We're kind of just here and always have been. So to really sell that to people is very difficult," she said.

But there's a new arts hub in town. A fried chicken restaurant opening up. An apartment building set for construction on Main Street.

Lillooet could be making another turn — just as it has again and again.

"It doesn't look like it's changed, but it is changing. And that's the really exciting part," said Leach.

"But it's not changing in a way that should be scary or fearful because we're changing in the way we view Lillooet. We're not a one-stop shop anymore."

Justin McElroy/CBC
Justin McElroy/CBC

'Tourists are coming like crazy now'

If Lillooet is a town starting a new upward trajectory, Ucluelet is a community that has seen the change already happen, with huge increases in both population and housing prices in the last five years.

"The tourists are coming here like crazy now," said Geoff Johnson, a Ucluelet musician and filmmaker who runs a YouTube channel about the town.

It's easy to understand Ucluelet's appeal: a town on the edge of Vancouver Island and a gateway to West Coast wilderness on land or sea. It's a small community with access to nearly as many amenities as Tofino — and nearly as many restaurants and hotels — while retaining a more rugged and affordable feel (at least for now).

There's no massive beaches, but plenty of views and plenty of charm.

"It's a little bit more relaxed in town here. It's not as glamorous and it's not as overly touristic," said Allan Cukier, head brewer at Ucluelet Brewing.

"We get to reap all the benefits without having to be the number one in the spotlight."

Both communities have plenty going for them, beating out 31 other small communities on Vancouver Island and in southwest B.C. to advance to the semifinals.

Only one can move onto the championship final of the Search for B.C.'s Best Small Town.

Which will it be?

CBC News
CBC News

Census stats

Ucluelet:

  • Median age: 39.2.

  • Renter households: 29.7 per cent.

  • Median total household income: $61,888.

  • BIPOC members as a percentage of community population: 18.9 per cent.

  • Road to the Elite Eight: Defeated Ahousaht 86-14 per cent, Tofino 61-39 per cent, Qualicum Beach 64-36 per cent, Cowichan Bay 70-30 per cent and Hornby Island 68-32 per cent.

Lillooet:

  • Median age: 51.1.

  • Renter households: 25.7 per cent.

  • Median total household income: $53,077.

  • BIPOC members as a percentage of community population: 30.3 per cent.

  • Road to the Elite Eight: Defeated Merritt 58-42 per cent, Lower Nicola 70-30 per cent, Lytton 59-41 per cent, Sun Peaks 50.1-49.9 per cent and Salt Spring Island 51-49 per cent.

*Census numbers outside population growth are from 2016.

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