The boom in B.C.
There’s a lot more happening in the mountain resort business than just Whistler
By Bob Barnett
To understand just how myopic Americans can sometimes be, we go back to last spring’s National Ski Areas Association meeting in Colorado Springs. In one particular seminar a respected firm was presenting figures on skier visits last winter and bemoaning the lack of growth in the ski industry in general. To illustrate its point, the firm used a large map of the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, and showed how skier visits in each region were stagnant.
Brent Harley, a mountain resort planner based in Whistler, and former Whistlerite Roger McCarthy, now vice president and general manager of Mont Tremblant, looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Not only is skiing growing in Canada, in British Columbia mountain resorts are positively booming.
"The B.C. ski industry is pretty healthy," agrees Paul Mathews of Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners.
While most of the media coverage of the mountain resort industry has focused on the consolidation that’s taken place within the industry in recent years, what’s been going on in British Columbia has gone largely unnoticed. Only Whistler’s phenomenal rate of growth has made headlines, but at least a dozen B.C. mountain resorts are in the middle of significant on-mountain expansion plans and village developments. Some of these plans may take years to complete, but already hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in resorts in the Okanagan, the Kootenays and Vancouver Island. For example:
o At Sun Peaks, Nippon Cable has invested more than $50 million since it bought Tod Mountain five years ago. Total investment in the village and mountain in the last five years is approximately $150 million.
o Big White announced last year a $45 million expansion that began with a new day lodge and administration building and a second base area, which was opened up last winter with the Gem Lake Express quad chair. A developer wants to build a 300-room hotel and convention facility on the mountain.
o Intrawest is spending more than $120 million at Panorama building a new golf course and developing 1,300 homes.
o Albertan Charlie Locke, who purchased the Fernie ski area last spring, has plans for a $100 million redevelopment over the next decade. He’s already sold two hotel sites and real estate prices have doubled since he bought the area.
o The City of Rossland is working on comprehensive rezoning for a village development at the base of Red Mountain.
o At Blue River, heli-ski operator Mike Wiegele has a nine-phase development planned for Saddle Mountain which includes 4,200 vertical feet of lift-serviced skiing.
o At Mount Washington, there are plans in place to create a pedestrian village at the base of the mountain.
o Silver Star continues development of its alpine village and is working on a golf course.
So why is all this development taking place now? Ecosign’s Mathews says in large part it’s a case of Whistler’s success spilling over to the rest of the province.
"When we wrote the B.C. Commercial Alpine Ski Area policy in 1975, Whistler/Blackcomb was intended to set the pace for others. I think that’s unfolded. The reason the others are able to expand now is Whistler/Blackcomb is becoming expensive, and we’re reaching buildout."
Mathews adds it’s not necessarily British Columbians who have recognized this trend.
"The Japanese and others have been coming to Whistler for a decade now and have seen it unfold. They are now taking that to the Interior," he says.
Indeed, European money is behind a couple of the hotels at Sun Peaks and elsewhere.
Harley, of Brent Harley and Associates, another Whistler-based mountain resort planning firm, says it’s also a case of some Interior communities looking to diversify their economies and ween themselves from resource industries.
"The economic benefits, to a community or region, of ski area expansion have to be readily apparent," he says. "And we have to understand where the opportunities are; what is the highest and best use of the land. But I think B.C. is at risk by not taking this opportunity (to expand ski areas)."
Harley sites the Rossland redevelopment as an example of a town that sees its ski area as an economic generator. The Red Mountain ski area is privately owned but the City of Rossland has been an enthusiastic participant in plans to develop a village and real estate at the base of the mountain. The town has provided the infrastructure for development by extending the sewer line to Red Mountain and is establishing zoning and building envelopes for all the parcels in the planned village, similar to what was done with Whistler Village. There are already two developers interested in building lodges at the base of the mountain and development could begin as early as next spring. Harley calls it, "As positive a scenario as I’ve seen since Whistler."
Harley’s firm is also working on a new master plan for the city-owned Kimberley ski area. The town is looking at selling the ski area to a private developer who can help it realize its development potential, which includes a neighbouring mountain. Locke is one of several parties interested.
British Columbia obviously has the mountains for ski areas but there are internal and external factors that make investment in B.C. mountain resorts more attractive than other places in North America. Internally, there’s the Commercial Alpine Ski Area policy which, among other things, gives ski areas the right to Crown land in exchange for developing lift capacity. Mathews calls it B.C.’s ace in the hole.
Development of ski-in, ski-out accommodation and a village right at the base of the mountain just are not possible at many American and Alberta resorts. In Alberta, all the significant ski areas are in national or provincial parks, where real estate development is either prohibited or extremely difficult. In the United States, the Forest Service is custodian of most of the land and is carefully watched by powerful conservation, forestry and ranching interests in Washington. Mathews says it takes at least five years to get a master plan for an existing ski area approved in the U.S.; it takes about three months in B.C.
The real estate potential of B.C. and an untapped market is what drew Locke to Fernie. Locke already owned the Lake Louise, Nakiska, Fortress and Wintergreen resorts in Alberta, but the only one where he could develop any real estate was at the tiny Wintergreen. At Fernie, there is not only tremendous ski area potential and infrastructure in place for real estate development, there is also the real estate markets of Calgary, Lethbridge and all of southern Alberta. Locke believes that Albertans, who haven’t had the opportunity to buy property at resorts in their province, will jump at Fernie.
That’s also the thinking of Oberto Oberti, the Vancouver architect who is looking at the Whitetooth ski area in Golden. Whitetooth doesn’t have the skiing potential of Lake Louise or Sunshine, which Albertans would have to pass on the way to Whitetooth, but there is potential for a golf course and estate lots, something else that isn’t available in Alberta.
Aside from Alberta, where is the market for all this mountain resort development in B.C.?
"We’re tied into Cascadia, a region where the population is expected to double, to 13 or 14 million, in the next 15 years," says Mathews.
Indeed, the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland region is growing because it has remained prosperous and the economy relatively stable in the last decade, buoyed by huge international firms such as Boeing, Nike and Microsoft.
Timing is also part of the equation. The advent of strata titled condo-hotels and covenants which put the units into a rental pool when not used by their owners — concepts pioneered at Whistler — have made mountain resorts affordable to baby boomers, that huge segment of the population who have reached an age where they are secure in their jobs, many have paid off their mortgages and they are looking for somewhere to invest.
Mathews says baby boomers are still skiing because skiing is getting easier. High-speed lifts, shaped skis, better restaurants and more flexible lift ticket packages are some of the reasons for this.
The children of baby boomers, the echo boomers, are the next big market. The echo boomers have discovered, largely through snowboarding, that mountains are cool, which gives resort developers some assurances for the future beyond the baby boomers.
But back to B.C. Where is the seed money for mountain resort development coming from? Charlie Locke’s money comes from his ranching and oil interests, hence the name of his company, Locke, Stock and Barrel. At Big White, an Australian family, the Shumans, own the mountain and are driving development there. Some of the developers that have done well through Whistler, such as Bosa, are looking at projects at Mount Washington. Intrawest owns Panorama but is also developing real estate at Sun Peaks. At Blue River, Mike Wiegele’s heli-skiing business is the largest employer in town, attracting an international, high-end clientele.
But as healthy as the B.C. mountain resort industry is, some say it could be better. Masayoshi Ohkubu, president and chief executive officer of Nippon Cable, the company which owns 23 per cent of Blackcomb and all of Sun Peaks, complained last month that B.C.’s corporation capital tax and red tape were stifling investment in resorts.
"We could keep a higher pace of investment if we didn’t have that tax," Ohkubu told the Vancouver Sun, referring to a tax based on a company’s capital assets, rather than its income.
However, Ohkubu said in the same interview he would likely consider another resort development in B.C. by the year 2000.
And development of new ski areas is not as easy as expansion of existing areas. Al Raine has spent seven years working on the proposed Cayoosh Resort between Pemberton and Lillooet. He’s become so frustrated with bureaucratic opposition he’s ceased work on the project a couple of times.
Oberti’s initial plan was to develop the Jumbo Creek area in the Kootenays, but opposition from environmental groups and government bureaucracy have put that project on hold. In the meantime he’s considering the Whitetooth area.
Next month, Wolfgang Richter will submit details of his Garibaldi at Squamish resort proposal to the province. The Environmental Assessment Project Application is the first step in what may be a long and detailed process to win provincial and public approval. Wiegele’s plans for Saddle Mountain will have to go through the same process.
"I think there’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t have new ski areas in B.C., and we will," Mathews says. "But the environmental review process is a bureaucratic process, not public."
Mathews says "government inertia" is what’s preventing development of new mountain resorts.
"It’s not even that they’re against it, it’s just that they’re not for it," he says.
Still, there’s plenty happening in B.C. At Revelstoke, the Cat Powder Skiing company, which offers powder skiing via snow cat, is looking at taking over the Mount Mackenzie ski area and upgrading the mountain’s lift system.
Next door to Locke’s re-named Fernie Alpine Resort, well known American extreme skier Scott Schmidt has become part owner of the 8,000 acre Island Lake cat skiing operation — perhaps proving that Americans are starting to pay attention to B.C.
Island Lake, like Rossland before it, has developed its own mystique among "serious" skiers and riders who shun the fancy restaurants, corduroy grooming and four-star hotels of bigger resorts. And that may be a part of why B.C.’s mountain resort boom hasn’t garnered much attention — they are part of B.C.: wild, rugged, raw and not prone to hype.
They just don’t fit on a map of the United States.