By Vivian Moreau
Bungee cords that wouldn’t release and his speech blowing away in blustery, snowy weather that also nixed a media helicopter tour didn’t deter Dave Brownlie from extolling the virtues of Whistler-Blackcomb’s Peak-to-Peak Gondola.
Saying it would be “a lift unlike any other in the world” Whistler-Blackcomb’s chief operating officer Tuesday announced a May 21 construction start for the $51.4 million gondola that will transport skiers, snowboarders and sightseers between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains as of December, 2008.
Before a chorus line of international media Brownlie stepped to the microphone just as a snow storm began to officially announce the gondola — the most expensive to ever be built in North America — designed to keep snow buffs in the alpine regions of the two mountains and away from receding lower level snow lines that global warming might bring.
“The Peak to Peak Gondola will create a dramatically enhanced experience that no other mountain resort in North America, possibly the world, can offer," said Brownlie. “This link will effectively double, or more,” he added later in a news release, “the options for accessing the highest quality and greatest variety of terrain on any one day, from anywhere on the mountains. We are going to completely revolutionize our guests' experience.”
Brownlie quickly removed restraining cords holding down the cover of a Doppelmayr gondola cabin on display for the event. The cabin is one of 28 that will carry up to 28 passengers across the 4.4 km span between the mountains in just 11 minutes. The lift will cross Fitzsimmons Creek and the Fitzsimmons Valley with four towers, transporting 4,100 skiers and snowboarders per hour. The lift will break height (415 metres) and distance (3 kilometres between towers) records.
Last month the gondola proposal raised eyebrows after Whistler’s political leaders agreed to provide Whistler-Blackcomb with a $750,000 tax exemption over five years while the Intrawest subsidiary builds and markets the lift. Brownlie argued that the gondola will attract visitors from around the world and will result in a five per cent per annum increase in hotel room nights that could boost the resort’s share of room tax revenues by $600,000 a year.
Local businessman Tom Horler, on hand for Tuesday’s announcement, said the gondola is a significant investment in the community on Whistler-Blackcomb’s part and will help the resort maintain its edge.
“Globally we’re in competition with other world class ski resorts and this is going to separate Whistler entirely from the pack and everyone who doesn’t know already will realize that Whistler is the number one ski resort in the world,” Horler said.
Brownlie added: “This lift is the catalyst for a sustainable economic future benefiting both Whistler-Blackcomb and the entire resort community. It will solidify Whistler’s position as the undeniable leader of mountain resorts in North America, while increasing our appeal as a top destination in the world.”
Whistler-Blackcomb will also be putting money into upgrading the Whistler Village Gondola this summer. Brownlie said the lift, which has 50,000 operating hours behind it, will shut down April 23 and undergo a $5 million mechanical retrofit.
The Peak to Peak terminal on Whistler Mountain will be located next to the Roundhouse Lodge and accessed from the valley by the Village Gondola. On Blackcomb Mountain, the Peak to Peak terminal will be located next to the Rendezvous Lodge and accessed from the valley by the Wizard Express and Solar Coaster Express.
Brownlie also noted that funding for the Peak to Peak gondola, originally thought to be needing injections from outside investors, will be provided internally, as recently approved by Intrawest owners Fortress Investments and Nippon Cable. He denied that the project is already over budget and said contingency factors have been built into the lift’s price tag.
“With the construction cycle we’re in we certainly have to allow for that but we’ve been working on this for a long time and we think we have our numbers in a row,” Brownlie said.
Doug Forseth, Whistler-Blackcomb’s operations vice-president, echoed Brownlie’s remarks, saying that staying on budget is his personal responsibility.
“Right now we don’t have that problem (being over budget) but I won’t tell you we don’t have challenges going forward,” he said. “Unfortunately there is always the opportunity to see costs go up but we have done a lot of homework on this and have locked in a lot of our prices so we have a great deal of confidence that we’re going to be pretty close to where we need to be.”
Forseth said the gondola is a reinforcement of the long-term commitment to Whistler by Fortress and Intrawest.
“This is a major structure that will announce to the world that we are here and this is a Fortress-supported initiative,” he said. “We’re staying, we’re not going anywhere.”