An independent school vision for Pemberton 

Ontario sports excellence school wants to set up campus

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Ontario independent school The Hill Academy, which specializes in combining an academic program with healthy living and high-level sporting programs, hopes to open a Pacific campus in Pemberton.

Its CEO Peter Merrill is testing the waters with two open houses for parents and other interested members of the public on March 11 in Pemberton at the Meadows (6 p.m.) and March 12 in Whistler at The Hilton Whistler (6 p.m.).

"We're really excited about this. I'm not objective about this because I've really fallen in love with the area," Merrill said in an interview. "You can access so many different things; you can use nature for recreation and to support your curriculum, experiential education, the community, the organic farming. It would be just such a spectacular destination for a student, I think. It almost changes your mentality when you go in there, you know?"

The school in Ontario, currently located in Vaughn but soon to be moving to a purpose-built campus in Oakville, specializes in teaching dedicated student athletes and has 180 students from Grades 8 to 12. Thirty Hill Academy graduates gained Canadian Athletic Association scholarships last year, while six others were drafted into the NHL.

He said they wanted to continue the sports excellence program "for those who want to go on to the next level" in post-secondary education.

"That is the platform for totally dedicated student athletes, but with the additional vision, which I am totally excited about, is having the ability to provide what I call 'a healthy active-living program'," he said.

"This would be a rigorous program for students that want to do well at academics but who also want a program that is active, that teaches a combination of recreation and sport activities as part of the curriculum."

The proposed recreation centre for the community is key to the school being established in Pemberton, he added. He made a presentation on their vision to Pemberton Council on Feb. 19 and found council "difficult to read." Merrill proposed an "aggressive" way forward.

"Everything is dependent on whether the town commits to an athletic facility. If they can commit by the spring, May or June at the latest, then we would push to have phase one in September 2014. We need more than a full year to recruit," Merrill said. "We need 80 students to start off and we can build a transition into building a full-blown school facility... We need to get moving on this."

Nyal Wilcox, vice-president of the Sunstone Ridge Development, where Hill Academy Pacific would be located, was present at Merrill's presentation to council.

"We certainly support the idea. Our original idea was to look for a school operator to come as it would be a nice addition to the Pemberton Valley Community," he said. "As we were identifying schools, Hill Academy, in particular, caught our attention."

Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy said the academy was the sort of concept they would like to attract to the community, but the issue of the recreation centre was ongoing.

"This type of economic activity is good for Pemberton; a knowledge-based industry has great opportunity for this region. It can create good jobs and there is a lot of value there," he said.

The study into the feasibility of the recreation centre is due to be presented to council on March 19, Sturdy said. A framework will take shape in the coming months for costs, facility priorities and the involvement of the three main stakeholder communities, Pemberton, Mount Currie and Area C of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District.

A picture of what the community wants will be apparent by May or June, he added.

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