Catastrophe or boon? Concerns mounting over Garibaldi at Squamish proposal 

Public comment period on massive ski resort set to close on June 22

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO - Decision looming Garibaldi at Squamish, a project set to transform the Sea to Sky corridor, gathers steam this summer.
  • File Photo
  • Decision looming Garibaldi at Squamish, a project set to transform the Sea to Sky corridor, gathers steam this summer.

Whistler resort leaders are rallying in opposition against a new year-round ski resort, set to transform into a mini-version of Whistler, just a few dozen kilometres down the highway.

Both the Resort Municipality and Whistler Blackcomb are planning to send in written submissions to the province to support their position that a proposed massive ski resort on Brohm Ridge in Garibaldi be rejected once and for all.

"I'm very concerned about it," said Whistler mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden calling its threat to Whistler "significant."

"People look at Whistler and think it's big, and it's viable, and it's on its own scale, but I think what a lot of people don't realize is the very hard work done by the municipality, by Tourism Whistler, by Whistler Blackcomb, and others, to ensure our viability."

She also questioned if this was the right move for Squamish, which she believes is focusing on development of the waterfront and revitalization of the downtown core.

"Garibaldi at Squamish would seem to snag that opportunity away from them," she said. "I would have thought that the district would be standing up and saying 'This is not good for our town.'"

Concerns are mounting over the Garibaldi at Squamish (GAS) proposal as the provincial Environmental Assessment Office weighs the pros and cons of issuing an environmental certificate for the project. A new public comment period opened days ago and closes on June 22, following the submission by the proponents of a supplemental application which removes two golf courses from the plan and addresses water and habitat concerns.

As proposed, Garibaldi at Squamish will be almost half the size of Whistler at final build out, with almost everything Whistler has to offer — skiing, summer activities, second homes, hotels, resort condos and more. Proponents are looking to develop roughly 22,000 bed units; Whistler, by comparison, is capped at 54,000 units.

As many as 8,000 people could live there.

If approved construction would begin in 2018.

Boosting the application are compelling economic arguments, which claim that the ski resort will bring in more than $6 billion in total expenditures over the 25-year project, with thousands of jobs created.

"It's a very big project and will have significant implications," said local MLA Jordan Sturdy. "It has significant jobs and investment as well. That can't be overlooked."

So, will it be the catastrophe Whistler predicts, or a boon for the corridor? That's just what Sturdy is grappling with.

"There's a number of competing interests here, I find it really difficult to weed out what is the truth. And how can you know? It's a prediction more than anything else."

What is clearly apparent is the fact that the multi-billion dollar project could forever change the face of the Sea to Sky corridor.

Whistler Blackcomb's president and CEO Dave Brownlie attended an open house on the project in Squamish on May 21, a déjà vu, he said, of earlier meetings on the project — he was blunt in his analysis.

"The reality is it's still going to be a disaster in the corridor if the thing goes forward," he said.

"The biggest concern is the damage it will do to the B.C. ski industry."

He called it the "Cypress Effect." During the 2010 Olympic Games, images of a barren Cypress Mountain were beamed around the world, so, too, the trucks carting in snow across the province to save the Olympic events.

The enduring effect is that people believed there was no snow in Whistler, which was far from the truth.

Whistler dealt with the same issue this past season — rain in lower elevations misled skiers when the alpine had some good conditions.

"We're a rocking resort in the world... but weather is our weakest point," said Paul Mathews, president of Ecosign Mountain Resorts and who has examined GAS on three separate occasions, the first time in 1978.

"When we get those pineapple (weather systems) in January... that is our weakest point."

Had GAS, which tops out at 1,875 metres, been operational this year, said Matthews, it would have opened just a handful of days.

"It's such a shitty ski area," he said, also pointing to the lack of beginner and intermediate terrain and the fall of the mountains. "We know it's not going to work. They are so close to Howe Sound."

Reports that form part of the submissions of the proponents do not contain year-over-year weather data

"They started this process in 2003 and they say they have no weather data for the area and then they compare it to Whistler," said Brownlie, describing this as "ludicrous."

When asked why there is no weather data, Chris Gillham, spokesperson with Aquilini Development & Construction, one of the two main companies in the project said: "Well, actually the elevation of the village in Garibaldi at Squamish is higher than the elevation in the village in Whistler. (GAS village would be at about 1,100 metres, while Whistler village is at 675 metres.)

"I'm not an expert on snow so I can't really tell you what the weather's going to be like there, but everybody that is involved in that side of the market knows that there is snow there. I mean, I guess there's always winters when you don't get snow and winters when you do get snow, as experienced in Cypress Park during the Olympics."

There is always the opportunity to make snow, too, he added.

The cluster effect

The Cypress Effect is just one concern; the other is the "cluster effect" where a grouping of ski resorts close together can actually grow the overall business, according to GAS proponents.

"All the socioeconomic studies we've done seems to indicate that there's a market for being close to Whistler, which I'm sure is their concern..." said Gillham.

"I know Whistler sees this as stealing their personnel but our studies show that this would be a new market."

Whistler is all for growing the market, and enticing more people into the sport.

"If it was a viable resort area then, OK, great," said Brownlie. "It could bring more positive reputation to British Columbia. But unfortunately, it just isn't."

There is also building development to consider — 1,700 hotel units, 1,700 resort condo units and 152,400 sq. m. of commercial space, to name a few.

Whistler's year-round occupancy in the last year was 56 per cent; nothing to scoff at but not on target yet.

"I don't think I'm letting any secrets out by saying we have an overdeveloped commercial sector," said Wilhelm-Morden.

"We've got retail space that continues to be vacant. We struggle with occupancy for our hotels and we've embarked on a very aggressive Festivals, Events and Animation program to try to drive occupancy rates in the right direction. So to build a similar type of product, (56 kilometres) away, of course it's going to in all likelihood have a negative impact on Whistler.

Skier visit projections

GAS is projecting 850,000 annual skier visits.

"It's just not even believable on the back of a matchbook," said Mathews bluntly.

More than one million are expected in the summer.

In its submission to government, the GAS report states:

"... overall visitation to GAS at build out is estimated at 1,925,000 visits, with these visits expected to be new incremental visits to the region, with no negative impact on visits to Whistler."

Only 10 resorts in North America see those kinds of numbers and Whistler Blackcomb is one of them with its 1.9 million skier visits in 2013.

The second biggest in Canada is Mont Tremblant, in Quebec, with roughly 750,000 visits.

Skier visits have been flat in the U.S. market for the last decade, same too in Canada, same too in British Columbia, pointed out Brownlie.

"For some reason this resort is going to generate an incremental 850,000 visits?" he queried. "There's not a chance."

Next steps

A decision on an environmental certificate is expected in the fall. If granted, the project will move forward to the next steps in the approval process.

Brownlie hopes the government takes a different turn when it comes to developing resort capacity.

"Whether it's a Whistler Blackcomb, or a Sun Peaks, or Big White, or Silverstar, we're not fully developed," he said. "There's lots of available capacity to be built at the resorts in British Columbia.

WB has 3,307 hectares currently, but its controlled recreation area can allows them to go over 4,047 hectares with more lifts, more terrain, particularly on the west side.

"Eventually we believe that we can build because we have a great product here in the resort. But it's going to take time," said Brownlie.

Sturdy is conveying Whistler's concerns to the province.

"I've shared that with the minister," he said. "I think it's important for us to recognize what Whistler brings to the province. We know what kind of impact it has and we don't want to compromise Whistler's viability. That's something that's foremost in my mind anyway."

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