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Residents want to buy stake in Whistler Blackcomb

Some form of community ownership would increase pride in mountains’ operation



A group of local residents led by a longtime ski guru is raring to buy a stake in Whistler Blackcomb if it ever becomes available.

Peter Alder, the 80-year-old former manager of Red Mountain, Silver Star, Big White and Whistler Mountain, has been watching the situation with Intrawest closely. He said in a Thursday interview that he's "working with some people behind the scenes" to see if they can buy a stake in Whistler Blackcomb on behalf of the community.

"I think there's still a likelihood that maybe eventually, once the dust settles, that I think the citizens of Whistler could maybe buy a stake in it," he said. "Not me personally, but on behalf of the citizens of Whistler I'm still trying."

Local ownership of Whistler Blackcomb has been a dream of Alder's for some time. It's burned in him at least since 2006, when Intrawest and all of its holdings were sold to Fortress Investment Group in a deal that's now unraveling as the parent company tries to satisfy its lenders.

At the time he wondered aloud whether Whistler residents could buy a share in their local ski area, and now he's wondering again.

"Let me be loud and clear," he affirmed. "The people I'm working with, there's no intent to buy all of Whistler Blackcomb, because the way it's structured now, Whistler Blackcomb is a Limited Partnership and Nippon Cable owns 23 per cent of this partnership, so they own shares in this company.

"If (Intrawest) goes into bankruptcy, these shares are probably going to be on the market for sale and I would think that it would be good for Whistler, for the pride of Whistler, B.C. to buy, you know, if it's possible, to buy 20 to 25 per cent or even 30 per cent of these shares."

Bankruptcy may not be such an unlikely outcome for Intrawest. Lenders have announced they will put their equity interest in Intrawest up for auction on Feb. 19, smack in the middle of the Olympics.

A UBC analyst has told Pique that Intrawest could avert the auction if it files for protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, which will allow it to reorganize its assets.

Such a move might be welcomed by Fortress' lenders, who put up $1.5 million for the investment group's purchase of Intrawest. The lenders are believed to be seeking cash to pay their own debts.

Intrawest reportedly missed a $524 million payment to the lenders who include Davidson Kempner, Oak Hill Advisors and Lehman Brothers, which itself declared bankruptcy in 2008. To date, negotiations to refinance the debt have failed. The lenders have now put the resort company on the auction block in an effort to get their money back.

Intrawest spokesman Ian Galbraith would not confirm whether the company would file for bankruptcy and would not "speculate on the future."

"What I can tell you is that Fortress Investment Group continues to own and control Intrawest and all of its properties," he said in an e-mailed response. "Serious discussions with Intrawest's lenders are ongoing regarding financing and the Company continues to operate business as usual at all of its resort properties."

Alder doesn't want to give the impression that the community should own Whistler Blackcomb in full. He'd merely like to see the people of Whistler own a part of the company and take pride in saying it belongs to them.

"Whistler wouldn't want to own all of Whistler Blackcomb LP because we're not in this business. It's the same as if you buy a General Motors share, you don't want to run the company.

"Can you imagine the people who are on council right now running this thing?"

With a share in the company, the community could likely appoint someone to sit on Whistler Blackcomb's board of directors and thus have a voice in how it's run. It's a model that's been applied successfully, according to Alder, at European resorts such as Ischgl in Austria.

"I see this happening more and more, particularly in Europe," he said. "There's some very good ski areas who have arrangements like this, the municipality owns part of it."