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Phoenix II still rising and ready for flight

Participation - not money - is the temporary housing project’s biggest blockade

As Phoenix Mark II continues to rise from the ashes, the project’s biggest hurdle may be getting local businesses to sign up for the latest version of the temporary housing complex.

As of earlier this week, only 17 per cent of the 300 bedrooms have been snagged, although several bigger companies — like hotels — need to get approval from their boards of directors before submitting requests.

Many of the 45 businesses involved in Phoenix I have found accommodation for their employees this winter. Among those not interested are the original project’s two biggest participants: Whistler-Blackcomb and Gibbons Hospitality Group. About 500 beds were requested in Phoenix I before former supplier, SG Blocks, announced they were $3 million short.

“We have to find a way to overcome the skepticism that the first group created,” said Alvaro Ponce de Leon, a non-registered architect who is driving the Phoenix II project forward.

“The money can be found, that is not the issue anymore. The issue now is whether we are going to lease the 300 beds or not.”

According to Ponce de Leon, his group has already gotten offers from private investors. They are also in ongoing discussions with several lending institutions.

“We mean business. We are not going to bail out like the American group,” said Ponce de Leon, referring to SG Blocks.

The Phoenix II group started contacting local businesses last week.

Beds will rent for $700 a month, and a deposit of three months rent is required. Priority will go to businesses involved in Phoenix I. Also, businesses are being asked to sign up for five beds; at the very least, business owners need to sign up for two beds and find a partner.

Units are expected to be up either in January or February of 2009, and removed from the Whistler Racquet Club site by July 1, 2010. Leases will run only until April 1, 2010.

In the e-mail to business owners John Jervis — who is currently president of the Phoenix Housing Corporation, although the entity is being disbanded — wrote: “I will point out that the application for construction financing is still in process, and even though it is looking positive, the current banking climate provides no predictable degree of certainty.”

In an interview with Pique this week, Jervis stressed that he does not plan to put the employee housing units on the open market, although technically that is possible.

“I am first and foremost talking to the local businesses," said Jervis.

“That is the only reason why I am doing this, is for local businesses. If I were to open it to the free market… it would be only because I didn’t have a full house with local businesses. Sort of a last resort thing."

Mayor elect Ken Melamed said council understood the housing would only be for local businesses.

“There is no question that council was not about to support this for any other reason than with the expressed intention of providing relief for locally owned Whistler businesses,” said the mayor. He added that VANOC has assured him their interest in the site is subsequent to Whistler's interest.

Who exactly owns the resurrected Phoenix project is raising confusion. Phoenix II is not associated with the Phoenix Housing Corporation, despite their similar names. While the corporation, which was established by the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, is being disbanded, the entity may be transferred to Ponce de Leon’s group if the housing project is successful.

Controversy also surrounds Jervis's title of "president of the Phoenix Corporation." Jervis worked as a consultant with Phoenix I. After that project fell through, he continued to volunteer his time to look for another viable supplier. Now that the corporation is being disbanded, some major players have asked him not to use the "president" title.

Jervis said to clear the muddy waters, the new housing project will be renamed.

“As far as just respecting the wishes of the chamber, we’ll probably look for a different name to use. It is kind of irrelevant, but to me, Phoenix symbolizes this drive to solve the housing crisis. If they want us to clarify they are not involved, so be it," said Jervis.

To convince local businesses that Phoenix II is committed, the group has already started manufacturing the 10 prefabricated buildings in the Lower Mainland. The company in charge of the prefabrication, Chateau Homes, was showcased in an episode of the American T.V. program Extreme Makeover Home Edition, so Ponce de Leon said they are familiar with tight budgets and schedules.

“We have already put our money on the line, so we have to make this thing happen," said Ponce de Leon.

"It is a calculated risk, of course. If we don’t get the beds… we have other projects up north and we will divert those units somewhere else."