From coal to cool: Cumberland booms again

When a sleepy town attracts wealthy digital nomads, what happens to its old-school charm?

By Andrew Findlay
May 25, 2021

From coal to cool: Cumberland booms again

When a sleepy town attracts wealthy digital nomads, what happens to its old-school charm?

By Andrew Findlay
May 25, 2021
The Cumberland Brewing Company is a popular, and relatively new, addition to the small village. Photo: Jen Osborne / Capital Daily
The Cumberland Brewing Company is a popular, and relatively new, addition to the small village. Photo: Jen Osborne / Capital Daily

From coal to cool: Cumberland booms again

When a sleepy town attracts wealthy digital nomads, what happens to its old-school charm?

By Andrew Findlay
May 25, 2021
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From coal to cool: Cumberland booms again
The Cumberland Brewing Company is a popular, and relatively new, addition to the small village. Photo: Jen Osborne / Capital Daily

The councillor

It’s been one of those weeks from hell for first-term Cumberland village councillor Vickey Brown. Ever since she voted in an April 12 council meeting to reject a development permit for a second dwelling on a Camp Road property, Brown has been on the receiving end of some social media vitriol. She’s been called NIMBY, even accused of having a conflict of interest given that she lives on Camp Road—one of a few dozen streets, total, in the village.    

“It's gotten personal. It’s probably been my worst week on council,” she says, sounding resigned as she sips a coffee beneath the shade of an old Douglas fir tree at The Village Park.    

Cumberland can be a fishbowl. That’s why Brown opted to meet away from the bustle of Dunsmuir Avenue, the main street where sidewalk debates over municipal politics are as common in this mountain biking-obsessed community as taking a deep dive into the merits of a favourite piece of trail.

The village sits in a shallow fold near the east end of Comox Lake and nestled against the Beaufort Range, a string of rounded mountains that are snow-capped in winter and extend south to Horne Lake. Cumberland owes its existence to coal, the discovery of which in the late 1800s would contribute to the fortune of Robert Dunsmuir, already one of the young province’s wealthiest and most controversial industrialists. The mines fostered a multi-cultural community that saw Chinese and Japanese miners working alongside European immigrants—for half the pay. Among them were British miners from Cumbria, after which Cumberland was named, whose skills working the wet, sub-seafloor drifts of Devonshire were well suited to the Cumberland coal baron’s mineworks, some of which penetrated beneath nearby Comox Lake.      

Many of the miners built shacks on Camp Road, a short walk from Number 6 Mine (today, instead of the industrial din of a mine, kids shout, laugh, and occasionally cry under the watchful eyes of parents as they play in the shady Number Six Mine Park). Only a crystal ball could have revealed that in 120 years their rambling shantytown would be one of the hippest postal codes on Vancouver Island, if not the West Coast.      

It’s still far from a conventional neighborhood. Houses are packed tight, lining a narrow street designed for a different era. Car parking is at a premium. It’s a nosy neighbor’s dream come true. But it has a distinctly dishevelled charm and character.

The development application that gave Brown sleepless nights is for an accessory dwelling unit, or “ADU”. That’s planning-speak for a second house on a city lot. More often than not such an application would come and go with barely a footnote in the community newsletter. But not so in Cumberland these days; this one got heated.      

There’s tension over the pace of change in this village where not that long ago you could buy a century-old, three-storey fixer-upper for $150,000. Today you’d be lucky to find anything under $600,000. Housing affordability and accessibility is now one of the village council’s most pressing challenges. Though not unique to Cumberland, these days the issue is top-of-mind for residents, including Brown.

“I don’t want to just rubber stamp things. I want to be free to think critically about council matters. I’m also not NIMBY. I’m all about in-filling but there was nothing in this proposal that said it wasn’t going to be an Airbnb or vacation rental,” Brown says. (The village has at least 21 listings on Airbnb alone, and more are being added all the time.)

But this is a mere Camp Road brushfire. In the bigger picture, Cumberland’s diamond-in-the-rough, working-class character is undergoing a gentrified makeover, and the village is starting to resemble other recreation hotpots like Squamish, Revelstoke and Fernie that have seen affordability spiral beyond control. But it hasn’t happened overnight.

When the last coalmines closed in the 1960s, Cumberland drifted into decades of obscurity and neglect. Drivers weaved around potholed streets and the community garnered a reputation for being rough and dysfunctional. These were not prosperous times for Cumberland. But at the same time, the village oozed character and houses were cheap. It drew an eclectic mix of creatives, mountain bikers, tree planters, and others who saw something special in this compact town’s natural attributes.

Cumberland's proximity to the mountains means it offers mountain biking just out the back door and skiing a half hour away. Photo: Jen Osborne / Capital Daily

Now the people who helped make it a destination find themselves in the minority. In 2006 less than 50% of residents had a post-secondary education, and fewer than 200 earned more than $50,000 in after-tax income. Today roughly 70% have a university degree or college diploma and more than 300 are pulling in $50,000 or more.

The village is growing in population, too, welcoming 1,300 new residents between 2011 and 2016. The most recent numbers put the population at just under 4,000, but if current trends continue, its population could grow to 8,500 by 2030. Whereas coal was once its raison d’etre, “lifestyle” has become the village’s most valuable commodity.

Brown has a foot in both worlds. She was born in Comox but raised in Vancouver. Her maternal grandparents grew up on Camp Road. Her grandad on the other side was a fire boss in the coal mines. Brown’s late father Harvey was a Cumberland businessman and politician, serving both as a councillor and mayor, while owning and managing the iconic Waverley Hotel for two decades. When Brown moved back to Cumberland in the early 2000s, with a freshly printed UVic environmental studies degree in hand, she got a job working for her dad at the Waverley. Sitting with old-timers in the bar and listening to their politically incorrect stories was her indoctrination into Cumberland’s rich lore. Since the original hotel first opened its doors in the 1890s, this is the watering hole where civic politics were debated and search parties organized for missing miners and hunters over Lucky Lagers—now it’s more likely to be rounds of craft beer, and the lost souls will be bikers or hikers.

“There’s a real strong sense of community here, where people looked after each other,” Brown says. “A lot of people don’t realize that this was a town where nothing got done for decades. Managing demand from people who want to come here is a real challenge. We’ve become a destination community and COVID has magnified that.”

But the real shocker for Cumberland came this past March when a renovated Camp Road house on a postage-stamp lot sold for more than $1 million, to a Vancouver couple so anxious to bail on the big city and get a piece of village life that they bought it sight-unseen.

The realtor

Ronni Lister got the sale, and it caused a buzz.

She has one word for Cumberland’s superheated real estate market, awash in bidding wars with multiple offers and houses selling for anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 above asking.

“Craziness,” says Lister, one of the Comox Valley’s top performing realtors, as she zips between showings on a Wednesday morning.

She says the couple who bought the million-dollar Camp Road dwelling fits the average profile of buyers calling Lister’s mobile non-stop these days:      people with young families cashing out of the city who want to raise their kids in a small town close to the outdoors.

“They’re coming here for the recreation,” says Lister, who is an avid mountain biker, skier, and trail runner.

Like Brown, Lister has deep roots in Cumberland. Her grandpa Duddy Gibson was a coal miner; he bought his first house on Camp Road for $500 in 1946. When Lister got her real estate license in 2005, never in her wildest dreams would she have imagined that there would be a million-dollar sale on that same street.    

“I can understand why some people are worried about what’s happening in Cumberland with affordability, but affordability depends on what your budget is,” Lister says, displaying typical realtor logic.

Growth hasn’t been all bad. In fact, it can be viewed as a function of a town that is doing many things right. Brown and certainly Lister, who won’t sneeze at the handsome commissions, agree on that. In many ways Cumberland has never looked better. Its increasing popularity is a boon for Cumberland Brewing Company, Dodge City Cycles and other local businesses. The village’s once crumbling infrastructure has seen major upgrades; in 2019, $7 million was earmarked in federal and provincial grants for long overdue upgrades to its lagoon-based wastewater treatment operation, which for years had been an embarrassing, non-compliant, source of polluted run-off. Dunsmuir Avenue has received a polish with new curbs, sidewalks, cycling lanes, as well as modern water and sewer mains. Cumberland’s volunteer fire department has a new $4.2 million firehall at the town’s entrance to call home. And construction crews are set to break ground on the Cumberland Affordable Housing project that will occupy three adjacent village lots owned by Island Health. Once completed, the building will provide housing for 22 families through two local non-profits, the Comox Valley Transition Society and Dawn to Dawn, Action on Homelessness Society. For Lister, these are important improvements for a growing community, but also window dressing to the soul of the town.      

“Cumberland is special. It has a story,” Lister says.

A new house being built in Cumberland. Photo: Jen Osborne / Capital Daily

The dot-commer

Every community has one, but Cumberland's story has taken on near-mythological status. If it were possible to bottle the village’s secret sauce and sell it to other communities, it could make someone rich. Not only did coal fuel the Dunsmuir economic and political dynasty, but the notoriously dangerous mines promulgated a powerful labour movement. When the Ginger Goodwin Medical Clinic opened a few years ago on Beaufort Avenue, its name channeled the legacy of Cumberland’s most famous citizen—Albert “Ginger” Goodwin, a British-born union-organizing coal miner and pacifist. In 1918 he was hunted down and shot by a police constable in the bush near the south end of Comox Lake. It’s still viewed by many as state-sponsored murder. His killing sparked the first general labour strike in Canadian history, and Goodwin’s legacy continues to inform Cumberland's colourful civic pride.    

That’s the old, anti-establishment side of Cumberland, and it appeals to newcomers in a big way—even if they belong to the modern-day establishment.  

It's fair to say that Robert Purdy and his Swedish-born wife Ǻsa stumbled into the Cumberland story. He used to work in financial IT in the glass towers of London and Singapore; he’s still a programmer, but now works from a home office in the Cumberland heritage house with the twisted chimney that they bought in 2017. He is unapologetically part of the new Cumberland.

On a Wednesday evening, guys are assembling for a weekly group ride on mountain bikes, some of which cost as much as a down payment on a Cumberland house back in the early 90s. After meeting at the trail kiosk, a peloton of 10 starts pedaling up the Davis Lake Logging Main into the heart of Cumberland’s sprawling network of trails, which spans 200 kilometers through the hillside. The chatter is animated, mostly focused on what trails to ride and in what order. It’s the kind of light banter perfect for blowing off some post-work steam. Among this talented group is a chief operating officer of a marketing and business management company, a documentary filmmaker and producer, a hydrologist, an SEO project lead, a fisheries biologist, and a senior account manager for the Business Development Bank of Canada. Most in this group give back to the community. Some volunteer as board members with the Cumberland Community Forest Society—a non-profit that has raised millions of dollars through donations, grants, and bank loans to buy and preserve more than 200 hectares of forest around the community with plans to acquire more—or UROC (United Riders of Cumberland) which in 2016 inked a pioneering land-use agreement with TimberWest and Hancock Resource Management that legitimized 200 kilometres of trail. Purdy, now a programmer for a New York-based financial company, is a relatively recent invitee to the WhatsApp group that informs riders when and where. Their schedules are flexible; all but two work remotely. Combined, the group forms a snapshot of citizenry that reveals just how far Cumberland has evolved to become a 21st century community, where the desire to live there for a lot of people has little to do with local employment opportunities.

After Purdy quit his job in Singapore, he and his wife bought a bottle of wine and sat down to talk about their dream community. He wanted mountains; she wanted oceans. They both wanted small. Having been raised in Rocky Mountain House, Purdy was ready to simplify, but neither wanted Alberta.

The Purdys' new home in Cumberland, built in 1895. Photo: Jen Osborne / Capital Daily

As a first step they relocated to Victoria, not exactly a small town, but on a ski trip to Mount Washington in 2017, Purdy says everyone they met seemed “so enthusiastic about the Comox Valley.” It piqued their interest. They started scoping Comox Valley real estate listings. Ǻsa spotted one for an 1895 Cumberland home with a distinct twisting brick chimney on a hilltop corner lot surrounded by a sunny garden. That grabbed their interest further, even though neither had set foot in the village. They traveled up for a showing and found themselves sitting in the living room with the owner, who had strict conditions: she would only sell to someone who promised to respect and maintain the property’s character.

“We had to write an essay explaining why we wanted to buy it,” Purdy recalls with a laugh.

That spring their offer was accepted, and they made the move.

“I was nervous. I knew nobody and nothing about the town. I didn’t even know there was a biking scene here,” Purdy says, adding that he now rides the trails almost every day. “But it ticked all the boxes for us. I find it hard to describe what’s special about Cumberland. Everyone I know is coming here for the lifestyle There are so many local events. It feels like the whole town is here for the town.”

Purdy calls the move one of the best decisions they’ve ever made. But he’s well aware that he belongs to that vanguard of middle-class lifestyle pilgrims who are, one sale after another, pushing real estate prices into the stratosphere. Purdy remembers, not long after unpacking their moving boxes, sitting in the chair at the now-closed Cameron’s Salon & Barber. The stylist was opining about the influx of “hipsters” and city people with money that were changing the town. He kept his head down.

“She was holding a sharp pair of scissors,” he says, only half joking.

The Exile

Christine McCulloch wasn’t impressed by how a simple development application ended up pitting neighbour against neighbour and turned councillor Brown into an unwitting pariah; she was even less impressed when an anonymous neighbour—and development supporter—dropped a leaflet at her door criticizing council. McCulloch, herself a Camp Road resident, found it sneaky and meddlesome. From an outsider’s perspective it seems petty; adults slinging mud. One thing it does say clearly is that people are passionate about Cumberland, warts and all.  

“It’s time for Cumberland to get a training bra,” McCulloch says.

Though councillor Vickey Brown made some enemies when she voted against the Camp Road ADU, she also had supporters. One of them is Jan Neuspiel, mild-mannered mountain guide and owner of Island Alpine Guides. He used to live in a century-old Camp Road home before he and his wife sold a few years back and moved to a larger property on a quieter Cumberland street.

“The way people reacted was unacceptable. Even if you disagree you have to be able to debate these things in a civil manner,” says Neuspiel, who has been a village resident for more than two decades.

He says he supports densifying development but says the ADU by-law as written is too broad-based and does little to address affordability, something he believes strongly is important for an equitable and diverse community.  

“My dream would be for Cumberland to be a leader in non-market housing,” Neuspiel says, referring to Vienna, Austria, whose much-lauded affordable housing program gives the city control over 200,000 units through public-private partnerships.

It’s a big dream and in the meantime, there will be casualties.

One former resident says she bailed after five years, knowing she’d never afford a house. She preferred to remain anonymous, concerned about coming off as bitter, but has clearly given the Cumberland phenomenon some thought.

“As more people move there, they push away the ability of the spirit of Cumberland—the artists, the volunteers—to continue doing what they did to build the town,” she says. “It's harder for those folks to find housing, especially to purchase. That ship has sailed.”

She calls it “the mountain town story on repeat.” Boom, then bust, followed by hard times. “Fit and freaky” folks trickle in and build something beautiful, then comes gentrification and unaffordability.

“What’s next in the cycle?” she asks, rhetorically.

In her case, she admits candidly that it means moving on to another more affordable place and contributing in an incremental way to the cycle of gentrification somewhere else.

Contemporary Cumberland is fraught with tension, between residents who are just a few generations removed from the gritty coalmining days and newcomers like Robert Purdy for whom coal is the charming heart of the village creation story. Between what makes the town cool, and what threatens to be too much of a good thing. It’s like what Lucky Lager is to craft beer. Between these two solitudes is a community striving to find the balance.    

“That grit is still there. You’ll still see people riding dirt bikes or quads down Dunsmuir,” says Vickey Brown, as thought it’s a village amenity to be proud of.  

But it’s getting harder to find that grit. Just last week, people spotted a white Lamborghini cruising down Dunsmuir Avenue.    

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