By Andru McCracken
Just through the trees off a secluded piece of Bryan Road, close to the McLennan Truck Stop, is a massive concrete structure, the footings for what might have been an important cultural institution in the area. But instead of a building towering over the footings there are 35 to 40 foot tall trees growing there. The foundation of what could have been.
Almost 40 years ago a group of investors brought forward an idea for a resort for Valemount: it was to be called the Takayama Inn.
It was intended to become a 20,000 square foot traditional style Japanese resort.
The development made the pages of the Canoe Valley Echo, then edited by George Ives.
“The Takayama Inn, to be located approximately three miles north of Valemount west of the Yellowhead, is well on its way to becoming a reality,” reads the lead of the story published in the Echo on June 13, 1979.
What no one knew was that a financial crisis was about to sweep across the country causing chaos and ruin for the project.
David E. Young was the president of the project and remembers the excitement of the time.
“It was a big building and the plans were beautiful,” said Young. “We had a tentative understanding with Hans Gmoser that we would put people up in the inn who would take part in his heliskiing program.”
Young’s plan included recruiting staff from Japan. They would instruct local staff on how to run the baths while learning English.
Young said that the investors were almost all anthropologists and profits had been earmarked to fund an East-Asian cultural institute on the same site.
They went so far as to bring their architect to Japan to get a better sense of Japanese design concepts, and while there they found a potential sister city for Valemount: the city of Takayama.
Takayama is a city in Japan’s mountainous Gifu Prefecture. The narrow streets of its Sanmachi Suji historic district are lined with wooden merchants’ houses dating to the Edo Period, along with many small museums. Since that time, Takayama has received UNESCO World Heritage Site status and is a thriving tourism destination.
But the Takayama Inn near Valemount did not materialize.
“We had a grant from the business development bank and another one from the province,” said Young. “We proceeded and got the foundations in, but when the economic situation turned bad funding was withdrawn.”
Some of the property is still owned by one of the investors.
“It doesn’t bother me now. I was pretty depressed at the time,” said Young. “We had invested our own money as well and had sold the idea to Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians who had been through relocation camps.”
Young couldn’t bear the thought of shorting these investors who had been through so much. He said he worked hard to ensure local suppliers and contractors were paid.
“Everybody lost money,” he said.
After retiring from the university, Young went on to work for three years in Japan in order to pay the investors back.
Despite the project’s failure, and the hardship he and others went through he believes the idea was a good one.
“I still feel it was a good project. The research institute would have been a good thing for the community,” he said. “With all the luxury of a Japanese inn, I think it might have been popular.”
Local historian Joan Nordli remembers the project well. Her late husband Arnie helped build Bryan Road which leads to the intended site. Other properties have since been built up in the area.
Joan said that the financial crisis was a difficult time and recalls the hardship her family faced in the coming years.
Chris Zimmerman had just moved to Valemount in the fall of 1979 and happened to be looking for work when he met one of the contractors for the project downtown.
“The roads were just dead on a Saturday afternoon and I ran into Richard Longevin who I knew from Jasper,” he said. The two knew each other and had ski toured together. Longevin asked Zimmerman if he’d help build a project he was working on, the Takayama Inn.
Zimmerman asked how much he’d make an hour, Longevin replied that they paid $100 per day.
“It was pretty good money in those days,” said Zimmerman.
He was excited about the project because of the style of the building.
“They were going to build fancy curved beams and Japanese notches and that sort of stuff,” he said.
“I thought I had it made.”
Zimmerman began working on the project and he remembers that the weather was ‘unbelievably’ nice. They were able to pour cement until the end of November.
He said it seemed like money was no object at the time, instead of reusing the lumber from concrete forms, they just stacked it and used new lumber.
Zimmerman figured he’d be able to work on the project for two or three years, but the good times only lasted two months.
“They laid everybody off at the end of November and the [contractors] finished the job just by themselves,” he said.
Zimmerman remembers the cost of borrowing jumped that year.
“From the fall to the spring the interest rate jumped from 8 to 18%,” he said.
Reflecting on it, Zimmerman also believes it could have been a success.
“Honestly I think it was a good project. They were going to build a fancy Japanese lodge and hook up with Japanese bus tours,” he said. “I thought it was a great concept. It’s too bad it fell flat.”