The Wilderness City

City Of Whitehorse

“There’s Whitehorse, then there’s the Yukon,” goes a local saying. Located on the Alaska Highway, Whitehorse takes pride in sharing the wilderness – literally at its doorstep.
Whitehorse is the Yukon’s largest city and territorial capital, incorporated in 1950. The city is home to 80 per cent of the territory’s population and although quaint in character, it is a bustling hub of activity to those who visit or simply call it home. The city’s uniqueness is found not only in its thriving presence amid the limitless bounty of the pristine landscape, but because Whitehorse coexists, unthreatening, with its environment.

That’s the status quo that Whitehorse’s Mayor, Bev Buckway and residents want to maintain. “Our residents really value their green space,” she says. Whitehorse is situated in a valley, nestled along both sides of the Yukon River that runs through the middle of the city, making Whitehorse geographically challenged in terms of development.

Many of Whitehorse’s neighbourhoods are separated by the terrain’s prominent geographic features – lakes, rivers and mountains – requiring forethought in urban planning. Some sub-divisions are classed as “country residential,” located outside the downtown core, having different municipal by-laws. It’s a challenge that can be addressed, explains Bev. “We have to build around the geographical restraints and take advantage of our green space.”

Presently, the Yukon has a population of 36,000, a figure indicating its ninth straight year of growth. It is the appreciation of wide open spaces, a stable economy and the plethora of recreational and cultural activities that is attracting and retaining its population. It is this growth that is, “The mainstay of our economic development in the Yukon,” says Bev. “Our planning department is involved as more people move to the Yukon. Certainly, people need places to live… We have a large Yukon government Department of Tourism and Economic Development… much of the work that goes on is Yukon-wide.”

To a large degree, the Yukon’s economy is reliant on the territory’s mining sector, which has generally been seen as underexplored. In the past, mineral development was restrained by rugged terrain and lack of accessibility. Now, with highly developed road systems and government assistance programs, exploration activity has seen resurgent. There are currently over 100 mining companies involved in exploration work, 50 of which have spent over $1 million each in related expenditures. Current forecasts indicate that mining exploration expenditures, in total, could reach $160-200 million, well above the historic average, with gold accounting for 70 percent of mineral expenditures.

Many of Whitehorse’s businesses provide needed services to the mining industry, such as food services, accommodation, freight services and skilled labour, which has accounted for much of Whitehorse’s recent growth.

In order to accommodate the population growth in Whitehorse, a recent Government of Yukon budget includes funding to address housing needs and land availability. Of the $35 million commitment toward this objective, half will be allocated to the development of the new Whistle Bend sub-division in Whitehorse which will be the largest sub-division in the city. Lots from phase one of the six-phase Whistle Bend project will be available for purchase in late 2012. Upon completion, close to 4000 housing units will accommodate 8000 people. Spending will also include additional residential lots, developed on Yukon government land in the downtown core.

When speaking about other factors contributing to Whitehorse’s growth, Bev relates, “People are surprised and impressed when they come. It’s not what they expected. We have many things that attract people and that’s one of the reasons our population is growing.” And certainly those attractions, for tourists, are a driving force for both the Yukon and Whitehorse economy.

Border crossings accounted for over 300,000 visitors to the Yukon last year, indicating a steady increase in recent years. Visitation from the U.S., the Yukon’s largest tourism market, accounted for two-thirds of its border crossings. There are also thousands of tourists both national and international, visiting the Yukon yearly by land and sea. “We have many European visitors that come to visit and then come back to buy property and businesses,” states Bev. “They like the wide open spaces and the fact that the population density is low.”

It is winter tourism that’s big business in Whitehorse. February is the busiest month of the year largely due to the city’s array of cultural and recreational activities. “People come to experience the winter,” says Bev. Tourist attractions such as the annual Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous offer numerous events and activities to beat the winter doldrums. Such events as the international snow carving competitions, talent shows, dog sled workshops and helicopter rides draw crowds. Noteworthy is the international dog sled race, the Yukon Quest, a 1000 mile trek between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska. This race is considered to be the most gruelling of its kind in the world with its difficult trails and harsh winter conditions. With back to back events, there’s always plenty to do in Whitehorse year round.

It is during the summer that, “We see a lot of rubber tire traffic, as we call it,” Bev explains. “Recreational vehicles, campers, coach traffic and people off cruise ships from Skagway, Alaska, our nearest port, mean that we have a 70 percent occupancy rate year-round in our hotels. We do well.”

As for the sourdoughs, (permanent residents), Whitehorse attracts highly educated young professionals employed in various sectors, mostly government. With four levels of government – Federal, Territorial, Municipal and First Nations, 43 percent of the Yukon’s workforce are government employees. Compared to elsewhere in the Yukon, Whitehorse has a stable work environment with a lower unemployment rate.

Aside from mining, tourism and government, the economic development of Whitehorse benefits from the Yukon’s First Nations – the Kwanlin Dun and the Ta’an Kwach’an Council – whose traditional territories share Whitehorse’s municipal boundaries. The city has service agreements with these First Nations. “We do a lot of work with them when it comes to planning and self government agreements,” says Bev. “We have to ensure we have adequate consultation to promote suitable adjoining land use… we have an amazing diversity in our community.” Many First Nations tourism businesses are centred in Whitehorse such as retail, arts and crafts and adventure outfitters.

Bev reiterates that Whitehorse can be an entrepreneurial Mecca. There is a diversity of businesses in the Yukon, and it is Whitehorse that is home to the majority of these businesses. People are choosing Whitehorse because of the friendly business climate and the knowledge that the city is not as remote as generally perceived. Whitehorse’s Erik Nielsen Airport has year round service to Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. Small airlines offer year-round flights to smaller communities, with chartered flights to others. Whitehorse boasts a network of highways, primarily the Alaska Highway, which connects the Yukon with Alaska, British Columbia and the Alberta highway networks as well as residential and industrial areas within the city. Bus service is also available for commuters in the city.

A large number of home-based businesses started in Whitehorse in the 1990s, most as a result of strong growth in professional and technical areas. These businesses see the tight-knit community appeal as being advantageous to growth and to maintaining a strong client base. Whitehorse also has a very active volunteer community ready to give of their time. “It is the volunteers in our business community that make Whitehorse what it is,” says Bev. “It’s easy to connect business here, to connect people… People come and start businesses and just love it… Whitehorse always welcomes new business.”

The city of Whitehorse’s Strategic Sustainability Plan was developed by the community in 2007. It essentially incorporates a guiding principle for the next 50 years. Components that will drive a sustainable community such as the economy, environment and identity will be paramount to the city’s quality of life and its sense of community. It is sustainability that is, “The single most useful word that encapsulates what we are looking to achieve,” adds Bev. “We know we have to change the way we do things; our sustainability is far reaching. Our official community plan is the overall guiding document that municipalities have.”

The lifestyle of Whitehorse is appealing to a broad range of people, and it is this lifestyle that residents and tourists are seeking. “People feel that they can be themselves here,” says Bev. With diverse arts, cultural and recreational opportunities, there is an event or activity to suit all interests. Whether it’s taking in a show at the Frostbite Music Festival, trying your hand at dog sled building or engaging in an active lifestyle at the Canada Games Centre, Whitehorse delivers.

There are, of course, challenges to be met as with any small growing metropolis. One of the major concerns for Bev is the housing shortage created by the city’s substantial growth. “Like most municipalities across Canada, we’re trying to encourage smaller footprints and higher density… our resources are dwindling from the federal government and that flows down to the territorial government and to our municipalities… we have fewer resources but greater demand. It’s trying to find a balance between the two. It’s a huge challenge for our municipality.”

Still, Bev remains confident in Whitehorse’s appeal. “Just come have a look. I think you’d be pleasantly surprised.”

January 23, 2019, 9:57 PM EST