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BANFF ELECTION: Council candidates seek to address toll residents feel living in tourist town

In Banff’s last community social assessment, residents indicated growing visitation, now at more than four million visitors to Banff National Park a year, and the associated traffic congestion that goes along with that was affecting their quality of life and sense of belonging.
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Pedestrians walk along a crowded Banff Avenue on Saturday (Jan. 16). EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

BANFF – Living where the world visits is taking a toll on many of the tourist town’s residents.

In Banff’s last community social assessment, residents indicated growing visitation, now at more than four million annual visitors to Banff National Park, and the associated traffic congestion that goes along with that was affecting their quality of life and sense of belonging.

A few council candidates in the upcoming Oct. 18 municipal election did not directly answered a question from the Outlook on how they would address residents’ concerns around these issues, including what ideas and potential solutions they would bring to the council table.

Mayor Corrie DiManno, who was promoted to the top job in August after Karen Sorensen stepped down to take on a new role as a Canadian senator, said tourism fuels Banff’s economy and a successful business sector is paramount to ensuring a healthy community for residents.

“However, it has become clear that we have work to do with our tourism industry to better balance our recovering economy with the needs of our residents who serve it, while protecting our mountain park from an environmental perspective,” she said.

If successful in her run for mayor, DiManno said she will be involved in the development of a long-range vision and plan for tourism in Banff National Park, which is currently underway with Banff and Lake Louise Tourism (BLLT), Parks Canada and the Town of Banff.

“It will guide us on how we can sustain a viable economy, community, and environment,” she said.

“As mayor, I will be at the table as a BLLT board member to assure this forward-thinking process includes genuine and meaningful engagement with residents.”

DiManno said she will continue to support goals from the community social assessment and feedback from the resident satisfaction survey that foster community wellness and help to improve the quality of life for residents.

“I do understand the challenges of sharing our home with the world,” she said.

In the 2018 community social assessment, the challenges associated with living where the world visits were ranked second highest by Banff residents, second only to the high cost-of-living.

Residents spoke about how busy life was and how there was no downtime or shoulder seasons anymore. They shared feelings of anxiety over increased traffic congestion and pedestrian and biker safety.

There was ongoing frustration over getting in and out of town on the busiest of days due to traffic, which often occurs throughout the busy summer months and on weekends hosting commercial special events.

Mayoral hopeful Karen Thomas acknowledged the frustration of traffic, non-resident parking, pedestrian congestion, accessibility to services, and emergency evacuation on residents.

She said collaboration between businesses, Parks Canada and council needs compromise, new ideas and initiatives by the different players.

Expansion of the resident parking system in the downtown core, work with businesses on Sulphur Mountain regarding access to parking, and initiating talks with stakeholders to evaluate how best to manage visitation are important steps, she said.

“Quality of life and visitor experience should not be at loggerheads,” Thomas said.

“Bold change is needed to amalgamate ideas to preserve our heritage, enhance our town and importantly, comply with and support our national park/incorporation agreement.”

Brian Standish, who is taking a run for mayor after serving as a Banff town councillor for 11 years, said residents’ concerns with the concept of living where the world visits are very real.

“In order to address this concern, we need to listen to their concerns, press restart and put our residents back at the top of council's priority list,” said Standish.

“Yes, we need to support community re-investment, but the needs of our residents can't be ignored. We need to show balance between the needs of our residents and the expectations of our visitors.”

Garry Gilmour, who was a last minute contender in the mayor’s race, indicated he wants to see a cap on the number of visitors to town.

“It results in poor visitor experience, too, when the town is flooded,” he said.

Jessia Arsenio, who was the first council candidate to file his nomination papers back in May, said concerns about living where the world visits and cost-of-living often share a table: in the workplace.

“As visitation booms and wages lag behind cost-of-living, working people find themselves with fewer options and burning out,” he said.

“With less downtime and less money to spare, we all pay the price to our community’s sense of integration and resilience,” he added.

“When people see their town change before their eyes in much the way Banff has, it’s become easy even for long-time residents to feel a sense of alienation.”

Arsenio doesn’t pretend to have every answer, but municipal government can be involved by helping to scaffold new civil society initiatives.

He said there’s clear interest in doing that, pointing to a $400,000 grant from Alberta’s civil society fund for the Moving Mountains Initiative, which is exploring and developing new ways to generate funds for groups doing important work for the community, including social enterprises.

“Our municipality can and should be a louder voice for strengthened labour protections,” he said. “We are overdue for the introduction of sectoral unions in North America and I believe Banff's civic and workplace democracy would be all the better for it.”

Allan Buckingham, who is taking a second run at council after falling short in the 2017 election, said council’s responsibility is to hear what residents are saying, and to act in ways that demonstrate to people they are being heard, even though not every resident will agree with every decision.

“When it comes to visitation and traffic, ongoing work on traffic flow and encouragement of alternative modes of transport will continue to make a meaningful difference on congestion,” he said.

“This doesn’t change that fact that there are more people in town more often, or that there is less ‘downtime’.”

Coun. Canning said balancing quality of life for residents and economic wellbeing is not easy, noting Banff doesn’t have a local economy without the visitors who drive it.

“Serving national park visitors is the sole reason our town exists; however, there comes a time when over-tourism does happen, particularly during the busy summer months and that affects everyone in a negative way,” he said.  

Congestion is a major concern for visitors and locals alike, but Canning said he doesn’t believe in closing the town or turning visitors away is the answer, adding better managing those days is key.

“We manage those days by full utilization of the intercept parking lot, running shuttle services, paid parking downtown and most importantly by working toward a free local transit system,” he said.

Coun. Christensen said one only need look at examples of over-tourism in Venice, Machu Picchu, Dubrovnik and major American national parks to understand the potential effects of “where the world visits”.

Christensen said he wants to see the formation of a community outreach committee, which could consider a host of issues, including questions around how many visitors the Banff townsite can handle.

He said over-tourism in Banff creates rising costs, chronic housing shortages, increased congestion and traffic, a rise in trail use, ongoing waste considerations and growing concern with wild animal encounters. 

“An example effecting locals is the inflation of housing costs,” he said.

“When a place becomes popular, developers and companies replace low-cost housing and local service businesses with upscale developments. This displaces local residents and smaller private businesses. Social and environmental problems often follow suit.”

First-time council candidate Stephanie Ferracuti said she shares the concerns of other residents around traffic congestion and cycling safety downtown.

“As we begin to return to the volume of traffic we saw prior to COVID, I’d like to have the conversations around how to address this,” she said.

“I’d like to learn more about and consider the benefits of initiatives that could give residents the option of moving around in a more efficient way.”

Ferracuti said she would support initiatives that work to get visitors complying with rules and understanding their responsibilities to keep the townsite environmentally sustainable, safe and beautiful.

“One of the reasons I decided to run for council is because of my concern around climate change and the way humans are treating our surrounding environment,” she said.

“The lack of compliance when it comes to visitors following our wildlife, recycling, and waste management practices can be disheartening at times.”

Looking at the 2018 community social assessment, council candidate Dana Humbert said there are five encouraging themes that make Banff great: the small-town community feel, appreciation of nature and environmental stewardship, quality and variety of services, amenities, and programs, abundant work availably, and population diversity.

He supports creating new programs and existing ones that increase food security while keeping the community and the environment at the forefront, such as the newer Banff Food Rescue, Santa’s Anonymous, community dinners, and BanffLIFE.

“I will keep the momentum to increase environmental stewardship by reaching the town's waste diversion rate target goal of 70 per cent by 2028,” he said.

A Banff councillor since 1994, Coun. Olver said residents have felt the busyness and the affordability challenges of their home town.

She said fewer visitors in the next few years as Banff recovers from the pandemic, along with the new Banff Community Plan to be developed in the next term, provide a perfect opportunity to have community discussions and decisions on these challenging topics.

For Olver, it is critical to continue support for affordability programs such as the Banff access card for low-income residents, affordable housing and the Good Food box.

She said she’d keep supporting transit, intercept parking at the train station, visitor pay parking, encourage more even year-round visitation so summer isn’t overloading the town, improved trails and make walking easier.

“We will work on the challenges and we should also celebrate what people liked about our home,” she said.

For Barb Pelham, the fact that residents feel unheard inspires her to run for a seat at the council table.

Whether working in healthcare, education, government, trades, hospitality, or retail, Pelham said the livelihoods of Banff residents are anchored in tourism.

“To enjoy life where the world visits, I encourage being active in nature, joining a gym, team, club, or volunteer to support others,” she said.

Hugh Pettigrew, who is taking a shot at a council seat after losing the mayoral race to Karen Sorensen in 2017, said he has seen many challenges during his 40 years in Banff, including the pressures of cost-of-living, housing and affordability.

“Our municipality needs to focus on all levels and to set priorities to ensure those in need are helped,” he said.

Pettigrew said the 2018 community assessment report should be a living document, noting the data is from 2016. “I support having it updated and kept current,” he said.

Shawn Rapley, who held a seat on council in the 1990s before leaving the community part-way through his term to take care of his sick father, said Banff has experienced incredible growth in visitation, resulting in many changes.

He said his perspective and experience in municipal government, within the framework of the partnership with Parks Canada, will help him develop solutions to issues while staying true to the community’s vision of the future of Banff in a fiscally responsible manner.

A first step in addressing the community’s big picture concerns is updating the Banff community plan, according to Rapley.

“We need to ascertain through extensive consultation with community how they want our town to look, feel and function moving forward,” he said.

Mark Walker, who filed his nomination papers in May, said his first priority as a councillor would be to maintain a high enough quality of life for residents in order to retain the best people and reduce the dramatic staff turnover Banff experiences.

While not necessarily a new problem, he said businesses have been severely short-staffed during COVID-19, putting incredible pressure on workers – and this speaks to quality of life for residents.

“Dealing with the housing shortage by continuing to build new units, adding more price-restricted houses through the Banff Housing Corporation, and encouraging landlords to provide higher-quality housing through a recommended landlord program would all help improve quality of life, reduce staff turnover and ease the pressure employees feel in the busier periods by deepening the worker pool,” he said.

Council candidate Les Young shared the same concerns of many long-time residents and seniors having lived and worked in Banff since 1972. “I can present these views from a personal perspective as well,” he said.

Council candidates Kaylee Ram and Kerry-Lee Schultheis did not respond to the questions by the Outlook’s deadline.