After nearly a year of careful planning, Vancouver-based resort developers have officially filed an expression of interest with the provincial government outlining their wish to build an all-season alpine resort near Valemount, BC.
The area includes Mount Arthur Meighen and Mount Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the latter of which was referred to as “ski hill mountain” by locals for a decade preceding the mountain’s re-naming. The mountains are part of the Premiere Range of the Cariboo Mountains only 6-8 kilometres east of Valemount and are visible from many vantage points in the village.
The development group, incorporated this year as Valemount Glacier Destinations Ltd., is headed by well-known Vancouver based mountain architect Oberto Oberti, whose resume includes being the chief architect and project head of Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden BC. Oberti says the proposed project is primarily a glacier access ski area and a sightseeing destination, and this is what will make it unique.
He says if their master plan is as good as they hope, the targeted users will ultimately be visitors from around the world, similar to the clientele already attracted by Banff and Jasper National Parks.
“What is proposed is not another development, but an ideal ski area with yearround ski capability, and a glacier sightseeing destination superior to even that offered in the National Parks, where similar vistas are only achieved by climbing expeditions,” Oberti says.
He adds the project will have the biggest (aerial lift serviced) vertical drop of any ski area in North America, all in natural snow and potentially will have the biggest vertical drop in natural snow in the world. They want the impact on the land to be “insignificant,” he says, and to maximize the natural experience; the project is primarily dedicated to aerial movement of people and skiing on snow at higher elevations. Unlike other ski areas, it would provide access to the high part of the glaciers where there is snow year round.
The Premier Range is one of a handful of places in North America with access to year round skiable glaciers and high-elevation mountains within a reasonable distance from existing road and power infrastructure. The impact of the proposed project on Valemount (population est. 1000 people) would be substantial. An estimated 300-1000 direct jobs could be created through the project as well as roughly 250-300 construction jobs, Oberti estimates. In addition, 2.5 indirect jobs could be created for each direct job based on rough estimates – as many as 4,500 new jobs and their associated spinoffs. While the Master Plan has yet to be drafted, Oberti says it will include a plan for overnight accommodation, creating an attractive mountain resort base, which will include restaurants and essential shops. It is not planned that shopping will be a reason to visit the resort base, he says. “We expect that most of the shopping requirements will be met by the Village of Valemount.” All season sightseeing for the Premiere mountain range and Mount Robson will likely be just as popular as the skiing itself and Oberti says the terminology “ski hills” should be discontinued.
“We are trying to make mountains accessible for the experience of higher elevations, the enjoyment of views and for the general public to access year-round skiable terrain with natural snow,” Oberti says. “In the Alps, people generally do not go to ski hills – they go to visit and ski mountains. This will be one of the very few locations outside the Alps where people will be able to have a similar experience to that offered in some of the legendary areas of the Mont Blanc, the Monte Rosa or the Jungfrau.”
“This project will indeed create a true and new legend in North America.”
The area’s potential as a high-level ski destination has been well known for the better part of two decades. Canadian Mountain Holidays currently sells heli-ski packages in the Premiere Range and back-country skiers have raved about the area for years. Less than a year ago, Valemount’s economic development office contacted Oberti regarding a potential tourism development in the area. Oberti, who was born near Milan, Italy, moved to Vancouver in the 1960s where he cultivated his career with his companies Pheidias Project Management Corp. and Oberto Oberti Architecture and Urban Design Inc. He and his office team have become well known for their design work and for successfully navigating the project development process.
Oberti says he responded to the invitation last winter by saying he could see a positive outcome only if there was public support similar to that his team found in Golden in 1997 in the lead-up to Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. In Golden, he says a key factor in the successful outcome of the project was the work of the local Whitetooth Ski Society, with Flec Demmon and Mike McKnight leading the group of ski enthusiasts, and creating a lasting and productive friendship. Oberti encouraged Valemount residents to form a Ski Society in Valemount and they did so last June.
“This time it is my hope that the Society will not only become a local driving force in project planning, but also will become a key player in the project in terms of special tourism and marketing initiatives, safety programs, ski patrolling and ski racing programs and training,” Oberti says.
He stresses that local support is critical for a project to go through. Oberti’s company Pheidias has also been involved in the proposed year-round alpine resort approximately 50km west of Invermere, BC – the contentious Jumbo Glacier Resort Project. Centred in the heart of the heli-ski terrain accessed from Panorama Mountain Village, the project would replace helicopter access by aerial tram or gondola to two of the most suitable mountains in the Purcell range to allow glacier skiing and sightseeing at elevations never before accessed in North America. But the proposed $450 million resort has met with vocal resistance and the project is currently held up. Project planners have gauged opposition at being a small minority of the population of the East Kootenay, though this is hotly contested.
In contrast, the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort received huge support from the town of Golden. In a referendum, 92.8 per cent of residents voted in favour of the resort’s development. It was the first 4-season mountain resort to open in the Rockies region in 25 years. Village CAO Tom Dall says the Ski Society is not connected to the Village of Valemount or to council, but the Village has been working alongside it while interest has developed in the project. According to Founding Director Joseph Nusse (disclosure: Nusse is also a founding partner of the Rocky Mountain Goat newspaper), the Ski Society has played a supporting role to the development group. He says the Society started once a few local individuals who know the incredible potential of local mountains decided to get aggressive and try to attract development interest back to the valley. Nusse says the first efforts included some targeted presentations developed with the help of Silvio Gislimberti and Tom Dall, Valemount’s Economic Development and Chief Administrative Officers.
“We systematically identified developers who we knew were already interested in developing large mountain resorts elsewhere in the province,” says Nusse. “We put together some lengthy presentations combining local photography, socioeconomic analysis, as well as infrastructure listings. We basically made the case that we already have so much in place, the only thing lacking is the developer.”
Nusse says the early presentations used many of the studies accumulated by the village over the years on the subject of adventure tourism and skiing. According to him, the slow and low-key approach of this development was needed in order to address sensitivities inherent to the project.
“We slowly brought in individuals who we knew had expertise and enthusiasm,” he says.
“We still want to avoid the baseless fanfare which has characterized so many developments proposed for this valley to date.”
Nusse says now that the expression of interest has been filed, the Valemount Ski Society will be having its first AGM where all members of the public will be invited to participate, and a president as well as board of directors will be elected.
“There are still sensitivities surrounding this project, and details will have to be released slowly for several reasons including the protection of the developers’ work to date. But anybody who wants to be involved in the process is encouraged to do so.”
The Valemount Ski Society, Valemount and Area Chamber of Commerce as well as the Village of Valemount have sent letters of support to the province for the proposed project. Oberti has already met with the new mayor and council and expressed optimism regarding working with the new local government. Valemount Mayor Andru McCracken says this is not the expression of interest of a first time dabbler. He says it is “substantial,” and “radically different from other resorts.”
“This project is like a wind that fills our sails. It has force and it has a direction, but where our sailboat is headed is determined by our ability to steer the ship.”
He said that the village needs to chart its course for stormy weather, because amenity migration can have negative consequences.
“A successful proposal could turn us into a vibrant diverse community or an overpriced half empty tourism town for the super rich. That outcome depends on us, not developers.”
The mayor also called on the rest of BC. “Don’t just buy a house here to store your skis. Get off your ass and help us grow our beautiful, caring, progressive small town.”
Oberti says they are in the process of negotiating a partnership with First Nations who have land claims in that area. While there is no existing infrastructure the project will use existing forestry roads to the bench area west of Valemount, where the base will be. The resort base will require its own water and sewer system, he adds.
“Regarding electrical power there are several options that will be discussed with the local power generation company and with B.C. Hydro. The connection will be a project cost that needs to be studied.”
The targeted number of visitors per year will be determined as part of the Master Plan. Oberti says the Master Plan will create educated projections, but ultimately the number of visitors will be dictated by market response. Major lift access will likely be by a gondola similar to the one at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, which has proven to be very popular and cost effective, he says.
While the cost of the entire project will depend on exact engineering requirements not yet determined, Oberti says experience indicates a project of this kind might have an opening phase in the range of $50 to $60 million and to be completed with a final investment, perhaps over 25 or 30 years, that might reach $750 million or even $1 billion.
Oberti says Valemount Glacier Destinations Ltd have a client who appears to be committed to fund the project, and who has the experience and background needed to fund a project of this kind, but he is maintaining the client’s privacy during the preliminary phase. He says once the project has an approved Master Plan and its engineering is sufficiently designed and defined to have a credible financial pro forma, there are many ways in which the initial capital can be raised, ranging from private equity to the creation of a public company.
“I believe that the key to real projects and real investment is to deliver a unique product and to have a truly good plan approved in reasonable time so that the investors, enthusiasm and confidence is not turned into skepticism, especially in these difficult times,” he says.
In Golden, he says the concept of a gondola to the top of the mountains captured the imagination of the client group and offered something unique. They obtained the approvals before the initial enthusiasm waned. “I trust that in Valemount we will be able to do the same, with an even better project. I can see the right convergence of positive factors for another success story.”