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Revelstoke dancing with the devil

Gondola and chair should be operating next winter

By Allen Best

REVELSTOKE, B.C. – Developers of Revelstoke Mountain Resort have now committed $30 million toward erection of a new gondola and chairlift that should be operating next winter. With that announcement, Revelstoke, a city of 8,000 people, is more squarely facing what environmental historian Hal Rothman identified as the devil’s bargain of communities that embrace tourism.

While old ranching, mining and logging towns may see tourism as an economic savior, tourism ultimately changes them in ways that proponents usually have not anticipated, Rothman said in his book, “Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West.”

“As a viable option for moribund or declining places, tourism promises much but delivers only a little, often in forms different from what its advocates anticipate,” Rothman wrote.

Revelstoke is one of those places looking for a rescue. Created by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s, it has had an economic foundation based on mining and also on sawmills, which continue to smoke up the Columbia River Valley. But several of Canada’s national parks are within easy drives, and a handful of heli-skiing operations operate in the nearby Purcell and Monashee mountains. The tourism economy began growing with the arrival of the Trans Canada Highway in 1962.

Ambitious eyes have been cast for 20 years on Mount MacKenzie, which towers over the town. A small community ski hill now exists, but the new resort aims to be a major international destination resort.

Similar to other destination resorts, developers are aiming at the immense baby boom generation now generally living in Canadian cities, but also a clientele that may well include Europeans and Asians. Vancouver, located 400 miles to the west, is a major portal to China and other Asian Rim countries. Banff, located 175 miles to the east, already has a major international clientele.

When the $1 billion Revelstoke Mountain Resort is completed, it is expected to have a ski-mountain capacity of 14,000 people, similar to both Whistler and Blackcomb. Squaw Valley also has a comfortable carrying capacity of 14,000, while Breckenridge has a capacity of about 15,000.

Revelstoke’s lifts and gondolas are expected to be installed this summer, allowing opening of the resort next winter. The mountain offers the potential for a vertical drop of 6,000 feet, the most in North America.

All this is seen with both elation and apprehension in Revelstoke. Housing prices have doubled in the last three years. Alan Mason, the town’s economic development director, attributes the increase to people buying property and hoping to get in "on the ground floor" before the resort develops. But there are also people moving there because they think it is a good place to live.

City officials say making real estate more affordable will be their No. 1 priority this year. The strategy is to develop more housing.

“It’s the old problem of supply and demand,” explained Mark McKee, the mayor. The city will look at increasing densities, he said, but it will also be struggling for several years at how to expand the infrastructure of city services to enable new development. “It’s kind of a chicken-and-the-egg thing,” he told the Times Review.

Times Review editor David Rooney says Revelstoke welcomes the mega-development, but is apprehensive about losing its sense of community as reflected in community dinners and other aspects of a smaller-town.

“We want prosperity. We want jobs and new businesses in town. We want many, but perhaps not all, of the amenities available elsewhere,” Rooney writes, then adds: “But we don’t want to change too much. We don’t want to become unrecognizable when we look in the mirror.”

Revelstoke understands changes are ahead. On Feb. 8, a panel in Revelstoke will discuss the realities and challenges of resort development in a community setting.

But Rothman’s study of Aspen, Ketchum, and Santa Fe suggests that Revelstoke is likely to confront a stranger several years hence.

“The initial development of tourism often seems, innocuous, ‘beneath the radar’ of outside interests, lucrative but not transformative,” wrote Rothman, a professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, in his 1998 book.

“As places acquire the cachet of desirability, they draw people and money; the redistribution of wealth, power, and status follows, complicating local arrangements. When tourism creates sufficient wealth, this becomes too important to be left to the locals.”