By: Korie Marshall

Almost 200 local residents attended the informal meeting with proponents and investors of the Valemount Glacier Destinations Resort project and the Valemount Ski Society on March 20th at the Community Hall.

Bruce Wilkinson, president of the Ski Society, told the crowd that this meeting was not a requirement of the government, and that the formal input period is yet to come, but Tommaso Oberti, spokesperson for Valemount Glacier Destinations, says this meeting is fundamentally the same thing.

“We are presenting the plan, we are looking for feedback; we’re just starting the process a lot earlier than we would otherwise do,” said Oberti.

“We are very fortunate to have a good partner,” said Councillor Fred Fortier, also candidate for Chief in next month’s Band Council elections for the Simpcw First Nation. He said the Simpcw are involved in a number of major projects within their traditional territory, and their request is always that proponents come talk to them. He says Oberto Oberti did that, and the Simpcw have been behind this project for the last 3-4 years, but it’s not going to survive with just the Oberti’s and the Simpcw.

“This could have extreme benefits for a lot of people,” said Fortier. “As Simpcw, one of our principles we dearly hold, is if the local people don’t benefit, what good is a project?”

“We know where you are, we see the destruction of the forest industry, the decline in the economy and the effect on small communities; we are also affected. We want to see sustainable economic development and we want to be part of that and share those benefits. Ask lots of questions because at the end of the day, we will need your support for this project,” said Fortier.

Mayor Jeannette Townsend welcomed Councillor Fortier and the Valemount Glacier Destinations board members, noting the high public turnout speaks volumes about the interest in the proposal.

Steve Leahy, one of the original investors in the project, said when he and his son Mike first came to Valemount, they knew this was a good project, but they wanted to know if the local community and First Nation were interested. They got, and have continued to get a resounding yes, but he says if there is “no”, they need to know it now.

“We’re not interested in fighting and convincing, we’re interested in showing you what we think is the best, listening to you as to why it should be changed,” said Leahy. “That is one of the reasons for tonight – it is so important to us to go through this process so we don’t have 50 people at the end of the regulatory process saying we’ve got it all wrong. We want to know over the next few months.”

“You have to tell us we are welcome, and I have heard that so far. But you also have to tell us what is wrong,” said Leahy. “This is the time to fix it.”

Phase 1

Tommaso Oberti introduced some of the high level features of the Master Plan. He says it is important to provide year-round skiing in the first phase, because without something better than all the other resorts between Valemount and the city centres, no one will come here.

“It’s critical to provide a destination,” says Oberti. That is why the first phase will include access to Twilight Glacier. It will provide an incredible viewpoint as well as year-round skiing. It’s not huge, but it is enough, and Arthur Meighan would be the next step. At final build out, there will be an 18 km ski run, the longest in the world.

“There’s other ways down the mountain, you don’t have to take that one,” says Oberti with a laugh.

“Until now access to these glaciers has only been for heli-skiiers or true mountain climbers. You can’t get to the top of the beautiful mountains we have in Jasper and Banff parks,” says Oberti.

Phase 1 will include the “spine” lift to Twilight Glacier, opening three bowls of “spectacular” skiing, with T-bars for summer skiing in the glacier itself and an intermediate area on the base of Mount Trudeau. But the sightseeing component is one of the things that differentiates this project, says Oberti. Whistler gets about 2 million skier visits a year, and maybe another 1-1.5 million more of non-skiers. But this project will tap into the 4 million visitors a year that Jasper gets right next door, and the 7-8 million a year Banff gets.

Resort base

The resort base is planned for the bench just above the airport, says Oberti. It will be very compact and environmentally sustainable, and is designed to be entirely ski-in/ski-out. Day skiers and visitors will park at a parking area near the airport and ride a lift up to the upper village. It will contain a hotel, a plaza, and access to facilities like a cross country ski area, tubing area and zipline area. He says the day lodge will be the first building built, and will contain ticket facilities, ski rental, a restaurant, and ski school.

There is also a snowmobile parking area in the plan.

“One of the things we try to do is to be genuine with what happens here today, and we recognize that snowmobiling is a big component of what happens in Valemount,” says Oberti. “So we’ve incorporated that into the plan.”

Economic impact

Jill Bodkin has been involved with the project since 2011, both with a small investment and as a member of the board. Bodkin says she grew up in Banff and loves working on projects from the very beginning but what excited her most about this project was working with the local community.

“We really want to respect both your past and your future,” said Bodkin. “This project will really show off your mountains to the tourists of the world, and we know enough to know how excited people are going to be about the opportunity.” She says it is important to help build local businesses and make sure the community can participate in some way in the profits from the project, and to help keep young people in the community.

Full buildout of the project is expected to take 30 years, and in that time, Oberti says it’s expected to generate $865 million in total economic activity, including trickle down effects in the community. It will mean 3,185 person years of employment from construction alone, and will result in 157 full-time and 479 part-time, year-round jobs for operations. And it will bring $140 million in yearly visitor spending in Valemount, resulting in about 378 full-time-equivalent jobs outside of the resort. Oberti says that was calculated by an economics expert, based on the average amount spend by visitors outside of ski areas like Jasper and Whistler.

Review process

Oberti says BC’s current resort policy is very effective because it requires a developer to install enough infrastructure – like lifts and roads – to create a viable tourism facility before getting the rights to buy a small piece of crown land to develop for ventures like hotels.

Oberti told the Goat on Monday the government has agreed to accept the Master Plan in draft form right now, because the proponents are waiting to finalize some environmental studies that can’t be done in the winter. If they had accepted the plan now, that would have triggered the official review process, which gives government agencies 30 days to respond. That could have meant delays, since the agencies may be waiting for the final studies, and could have required the Master Plan to be resubmitted. Submitting the plan in draft form allows some agencies to start reviewing informally as well.

“When those studies are in, the plan becomes final in terms of initial submission,” says Oberti, which he expects to occur in June. “We don’t expect much change, and we are initiating the feedback process now instead of waiting for the formal process.” He says a few things still have to be finalized including road standards and verification of wildlife studies.

Once the province accepts the master plan as final, Oberti says there will also be a public open house and a commenting period, from 30-60 days, followed by another open house, as well as the review from government agencies. Oberti says the province has also harmonized parts of the approval process, largely because of community support for this project. Previously, a review of the official community plan (OCP) and then zoning amendments would have to be done after the master plan is approved, but now, the OCP and zoning changes can be considered concurrently, so the official public review process can happen all together.

Public questions

The first question was from Regena Bergen, who noted a concern that the sound of snowmobiles takes away from the peaceful experience of skiing. Tommaso responded that it was a good point, which is why the resort is designed to keep the snowmobiles away from the skiers, on the Westridge, with just parking at the resort. He noted that there are snowmobiles on any ski hill, as they are used by ski patrollers, and they have to be pretty close to you before you hear them.

Dan Kenkel noted a concern about transportation between Valemount and the resort, and how the plan addresses linking the communities. Oberto said they’ve changed the base so that parking will be at the airport, and there will be a shuttle bus to Valemount, so that the resort will seem an expansion of the village. Tommaso also noted there will be limited retail at the resort, and they are still working on employee housing, but there is a good chance it will be in town.

“The project will give a substantial discount to all the residents,” said Oberto, adding that it is normal practice and the community should expect it. The community cheered and clapped. Leahy noted it will be in writing in the full master plan, and Oberto added later that it will be a substantial discount that will be permanent, and will be written into the development agreement, as well as being just good business sense.

A resident asked about projected skier visits, and Oberto says it would be similar to Kicking Horse which gets 120,000 visitor days a year. He says he can’t prove it, but he thinks the numbers here will be much higher.

Dennis Nordli, a lifetime resident, expressed concern about the village’s infrastructure and how busy the community will be, especially if projects like the pipeline expansion happen in a couple years.

“I don’t know if we want to be another Jasper; how much are we going to change?” asks Nordli.

Oberto said the resort base will supply its own water, sewer, power, be self sufficient in that respect, paid for by the developer. He says pipeline projects are different; they happen like a bang and are huge.

“Your fears are reasonable and well placed, but would apply to a project of a different kind,” said Oberto. “We hope it will be significant and large, but it will be over 30 years.”

Another resident asked if they have the investors to carry the project through the first stage. “The answer is yes,” responded Leahy, to more applause.

Rick Korejwo asked how much local business will get the opportunity to grow in conjunction with this project. Oberto said contractors from the outside may be necessary for specialized jobs, but locals will have “by far the first and best opportunity” because bring contractors in is not competitive, and there is an excellent workforce right here.

Another resident asked how the Jumbo Glacier development would affect this project. Oberto said construction is likely to be here first, but that they complement each other, the way Banff and Jasper do, and they complete a circle route for skiers.

Andru McCracken asked if there would be any conflict with or any desire for the proponents to limit potential industry in the community. Oberto says tourism and industry can and should work together “Certainly there can be conflict, but if industry is in conflict with tourism, it’s probably in conflict with the community too.” Leahy added they have no intention of discouraging industry, this project just adds to what we are already doing, and will attract funding and help spawn local businesses. Bodkin noted they are already working with the Community Forest on the road and bridge, which is a perfect example.

Oberto reiterated their recently declared objective of opening ski runs by Christmas 2016. He said it is not a promise, and depends on a lot of factors, but that is the target.

Curtis Pawliuk asked what will be available for the other three seasons in the first phase. Oberto said Phase 1 is creating the destination, which will include summer skiing and some biking. But he says the development of the biking trails will be a separate application, and won’t be a priority right away.

There were questions about the terrain and snow conditions on Twilight Glacier, and whether it would allow training lanes. Oberto said that is the sort of decision that hasn’t been made yet, but he sees no reason why there couldn’t be.

In response to a request for more information about potential partnerships with Northern Development Initiative Trust, Bodkin said “We are committed to investing in some arms-length way,” but further details aren’t available yet.

A resident asked what the priority is for expansion of the airport. “I don’t know,” said Tommaso. “It isn’t fundamental to the success of the project.” Right now the airport can only accommodate small planes, and there is just not enough of that sort of clientele. He says they weren’t involved in the study that shows it can be expanded, and it would likely be up to the local and regional government to expand it, as demand increases, which they expect it will. “If you build it, they will come,” added Oberto.

Chikara Hiroe asked about their experience with growing pains and the possibly negative challenges that may come with the project. Leahy said without question, there will be issues that arise with any project.

“But you deal with them. If you look at the plan, talk with us, listen to who we are – we are a small group, and accomplished – we have the track records,” said Leahy. He says problems can be solved if all sides want to solve them. “Social issues are all around us; we’re not parachuting in and solving your problem. We’re parachuting in to work with you to solve those problems.”

Maureen Brownlee asked where will they be when Valemount has to solve problems like housing 487 part time employees. Tommaso said it’s important to keep the project in perspective. “It is transformative, but it is slow transformation. You can’t predict a lot of issues because they are societal issues.” He says it’s not generally drug dealers and thieves that come to a community because of a project like this, but over time, you have to look and see what the issues are, like maybe the grocery store is running out of “x-y-z”. You can plan, but you have to be able to react to what is happening. Oberto says that the investor group wants this project to look at other examples and do better. Bodkin added that they want to provide jobs that will start to keep our children here and provide opportunities for the people who live here to work here.

There were two questions in the same vein of how the project would hire locally. Tommaso said hiring locally and using locally materials is a policy in the master plan, and part of the design guidelines, but it also just makes good sense from development, economic and social viewpoints. Oberto added that locals have the best opportunity, and are the most competitive, because they are here.

Rashmi Narayan asked about employment in the first phase and what kind of amenities there will be at the resort. Tommaso said there will maybe a convenience store, a luxury boutique, a fitness facility, ski rentals, but things like gas stations and grocery stores will be in Valemount.

“As we see in other resorts, there’s a ski rental up the mountain and another in town, and the smart people rent in town,” says Tommaso with a laugh.

A resident asked if there is anything that would stop this project from becoming a reality. Oberto said there are probably a thousand things, but because of the overwhelming support, and because of the capable group, they are confident in the project.

Tomasso says the project’s new website will be launched at which will include the full Master Plan, and will include opportunities to give feedback through the new site itself.