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Success in sight for Valemount ski resort

Glen Korstrom, Business in Vancouver, Aug 29, 2016

The B.C. government earlier this month approved Valemount Glacier Destinations Ltd.’s (VGDL) master plan to build what could eventually be a $500 million ski resort near Valemount in central B.C. near the Alberta border.

Initial financing for an approximately $85 million first phase is coming largely from a trust run by Toronto real estate tycoon Greg Marchant, with other investors including Toronto condo-marketing guru Hunter Milborne. Resource industry entrepreneur and North American Tungsten Corp. founder Stephen Leahy has been a minor investor.

The resort’s success, however, is far from a sure thing even though it has a breadth of political support that developers of other proposed B.C. ski resorts can only dream of.

Local politicians and New Democratic Party leader John Horgan support VGDL’s proposal. So does Green Party of B.C. leader Andrew Weaver, who posted an essay on his website extolling the virtues of the venture.

More importantly, the area’s Simpcw First Nation sees VGDL’s project as a way to stimulate the area’s economy and top up its own coffers.

“We have lands within the resort area that we can develop ourselves,” Simpcw chief Nathan Matthew told Business in Vancouver.

“We could develop housing, hotels and whatever else we can rustle up the financing for,” Matthew said.

He said his nation has been involved in the project from the beginning and that environmental impacts are minimal.

“It’s really not caribou habitat,” he said. “There might be one or two that wander into the area but it’s not their main area.”

The Simpcw have no ancient burial grounds or other spiritual sites in the area. In contrast, the Ktunaxa Nation opposes the proposed Jumbo ski resort in the eastern Kootenays in southern B.C. in part because the band says that Jumbo would encroach on sacred areas.

The plan is for VGDL to build lifts and groom trails so the first paying customers can ski down Mount Pierre Elliott Trudeau and stay in local hotels by December 2017.

They aim to follow the maxim, “build it and they will come,” though exactly who will come and from where remain open questions.

Valemount has an airport with a runway nearly 4,000 feet long but there are no scheduled flights, nor is there a traffic control tower. The airport services private jets and other small planes.

VGDL’s site is about a three-hour drive from Kamloops Airport, which is serviced by both Air Canada and WestJet. It is nearly three hours away by car from Prince George Airport, which similarly has scheduled flights from domestic airlines.

Project manager and Pheidias Group principal Tommaso Oberti told BIV that he expects most visitors initially to come by car from Jasper National Park, which is about 80 minutes away by car.

“Jasper gets about 3.5 million visitors a year,” he said. “That’s about the same amount as the community of Whistler.”

His research shows that Jasper’s visitors come from all over the world and not predominantly Edmonton, which is about four hours away by car.

Still, it is northern Albertans who will be one large source of visitors to VGDL’s resort. Many of those people currently drive similar distances to get to Lake Louise in Banff to ski, Oberti said.

His initial projection is for VGDL’s resort to attract 130,000 visitors in its first year, which is half of the customer base of Jasper’s Marmot Basin – a resort that Oberti said is nowhere near as nice as the one VGDL will build.

Another main source of visitors will be Prince George, Oberti said, because a lot of residents of that city travel to Powder Mountain, which is about the same distance away as Valemount.

The selling point for VGDL’s resort is that starting on Day 1, it will have year-round glacier skiing, access up to an elevation of 8,530 feet and a vertical drop of about 5,775 feet during the first phase of the project.

That will increase to 9,850 feet in elevation and a 6,726-foot vertical drop by full build-out in an estimated 20 years.

There is also the opportunity for hiking and access to scenic lookouts in the summer.

Attracting Vancouver residents could still prove difficult, given that the resort is a seven-hour drive away, along the Coquihalla and Yellowhead highways.