Opinion » Editorial


GAS running low on support



There's a long history of proposed development at Brohm Ridge, but whether that history continues or comes to an end may be determined in the next few weeks.

Starting with Adi Bauer's proposed ski area in the late 1960s, that got as far as installing lift towers and building a lodge, through Wolfgang Richter's plans in the 1990s for Garibaldi and the Aquilini family's latest plans for Garibaldi at Squamish, dreams of a major ski area just north of Squamish have been hard to resist. We recall a few years ago when a Vancouver television station investigated how real estate prices in Squamish might skyrocket to the absurd levels of Whistler and Aspen real estate if the Garibaldi at Squamish resort went ahead.

That seems less likely now. In the last week the District of Squamish and the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District have both announced their opposition to the GAS project. The Resort Municipality of Whistler and Whistler Blackcomb have always, if quietly, been opposed, for competitive reasons. Another ski area, closer to Vancouver, and the finite number of skiers and snowboarders in this part of the world are sound arguments against GAS, from Whistler's perspective. And as Mayor Ken Melamed said at this week's SLRD meeting, the only major ski areas to open in North America the last 25 years have failed.

But there is, correctly, a process in British Columbia to determine whether a new ski area should be built. It starts with an environmental assessment, which GAS is currently trying to meet. Numerous technical environmental questions have been raised about the GAS proposal, including where it would get its water and how that might impact the environment. The environmental assessment process is intended to let all concerned have their say and then the Environmental Assessment Office will look at the data, the expert analysis and the general comments and decide whether the resort can be built as planned, whether it can be built if modified, or whether it fails to meet environmental standards.

Approval from the Environmental Assessment Office, however, is just one step. The resort's master plan also has to be approved. The master plan gets into the economics of the resort proposal - how many beds will be built, how many skiers and other visitors are needed to make the resort viable, and how many can reasonably be expected to come. In the Garibaldi at Squamish case, this may prove to be as difficult as obtaining an environmental certificate.

The latest incarnation of GAS is more than a ski area. There are two golf courses planned, as well as hiking, biking, cross-country skiing and horseback riding trails and other outdoor recreational activities. Nearly 23,000 beds are proposed, to be built over a projected 15-year timeline. This is where a great deal of faith is needed if the numbers are to be believed.

The proposed resort is "intended to serve local, regional and destination skiers with emphasis on catering to destination needs and services through its range of year-round recreational opportunities, visitor amenities and accommodations." In other words, GAS is going after the same markets and using the same formula as Whistler and every other destination ski area in B.C.

That formula is based on real estate sales funding development. That formula was generally supported by the provincial government when it challenged the tourism industry to double in size by 2015, but it should be looked at skeptically in 2010.

Given the fact that there is a major ski area development underway in Revelstoke that still needs to sell a lot of real estate to be successful, that most other destination ski areas in B.C. are still developing real estate, and that the proposed Jumbo ski area in the Kootenays is still alive, the question has to be asked: would the development of even more recreational real estate at a new mountain resort help tourism in B.C. by drawing more people to the province, or would it further dilute the financial viability of existing resorts?

All this is assuming, of course, that there is a market for the real estate GAS would be peddling.

Garibaldi's proximity to Vancouver, on the improved Sea to Sky Highway, might give it a fighting chance. But in order to get that chance the whole master plan has to be approved. Ignoring the current economic climate - an environmental certificate could be issued and a master plan approved but development could be delayed until the economy recovers - that's still a big gamble by the province, which is already invested in the success of Whistler, Sun Peaks, Silver Star, Revelstoke and other mountain resorts.

And, as Al Raine found out, even if an environmental certificate is awarded and a master plan approved, nothing much can happen if First Nations aren't onside.