For years, the proponents behind the Jumbo Glacier Resort have touted the year-round ski area proposed for a former sawmill site west of Invermere as a veritable downhill paradise. But the billion-dollar project also has its fair share of detractors, from area MPs and First Nations leaders, to conservationists and even former NHL great Scott Niedermayer.
And with environment minister Mary Polak currently preparing her decision on whether to renew the project's environmental certificate, the future of Jumbo is very much up in the air.
The latest obstacle for developers surrounds questions from the B.C. NDP over the preliminary site of the resort's daylodge. With only days left last month before a provincial environmental certificate was set to expire and grind the project to a halt, proponents Glacier Resorts Ltd. built the preliminary foundation of the site. Opposition leaders have accused developers of building the lodge in a Class 4 Avalanche Zone, although a government spokesperson has since countered that by saying it's actually located 56 metres outside of the designated area.
"The daylodge is located where it is for environmental and practical reasons," said Tommaso Oberti, spokesman for the developers. "Some of North America's foremost avalanche experts have consulted on the project and the project designers have followed their recommendations."
A study conducted for the company by Stetham and Associates in 1995 found that risks could be managed by a combination of avalanche control using explosives and road closures during hazardous periods.
But the controversy over the daylodge doesn't end there. In order to have an environmental certificate considered for renewal, "substantive" construction on a project must have begun before the deadline expires. According to Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald, that simply hasn't taken place.
"Laying that foundation, I suggest, was probably $50,000 or $60,000 of work. Is that a significant start to a billion-dollar project?" he said. "It seems like something they plunked down in the last week."
Although the Shuswap Indian Band in Invermere has expressed support for the resort, Jumbo has seen opposition from the Ktunaxa First Nation, which asked the B.C. Supreme Court to overturn the 2012 provincial approval of the project because it sits on sacred land. Proponents have questioned why, in years of consultation, the Ktunaxa failed to bring up the spiritual significance of the site, but, according to Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall, there's a historical basis for that.
"When the Ktunaxa came forward and said this is a sacred place for them, they were mocked and they were ridiculed," she said, referring to a blog that was supposedly set up by the developers questioning the validity of the nation's claims. "For them, it was just like when they went to residential schools, where they were mocked and ridiculed and physically abused for speaking about their beliefs."
Besides all the concerns that have been raised over Jumbo's environmental assessment process, the project's critics have wondered if planting a year-round ski hill in the Kootenays — which enjoys the highest concentration of ski resorts in North America — is even economically viable.
"You've got a market that's pretty well served to tell you the truth," explained Whistler's Roger McCarthy, the former head of Vail Resorts, who has consulted on numerous mountain operations around the world.
"Nowadays, you can't build a ski area just on a lift ticket model," he added. "You've got to have real estate that has significant value that you can sell to pay down your capital costs and all the infrastructure."
For many, the most troubling sign for Jumbo's future is the fact that the proponents have yet to name a major investor.
"This is not an economically smart project, and that's why they can't get an investor," Mungall said. "That's why there's no major financial backing other than the small group of people who wanted to push this forward regardless of what the region wanted."
In response, Oberti said it would be "imprudent" to name a major investor in light of the "considerable intimidation" the project's opponents have engaged in.
Polak is expected to announce her decision on Jumbo's environmental certificate in the coming weeks. If all goes according to plan, developers have their sights set on a December 2016 opening.
Whatever the case, getting to opening day will be a bumpy ride, said McCarthy.
"I think it's a tough nut to crack," he said. "If those guys are really keen on doing it, I wish them all the best, but they're on a gravel road full of potholes for a long way before they get onto the pavement."
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