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Study makes case for GEMS private school

Financing, zoning next obstacles for international school in Pemberton

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For decades GEMS has been one of the world’s leading names in international private schools with institutions in 75 countries, from England to Dubai, and a student body of 65,000 members from over 120 countries. Now, with the backing of a new feasibility study, a new GEMS school is looking more and more likely for Pemberton.

According to Colin Johnson, one of several parents working to bring the academy to the region, a study by PKF Consulting confirms that there is enough interest in the school, within and from outside the community, to take the next steps to secure financing and apply for rezoning of the proposed site.

GEMS Education agrees, and will help proponents find financing for the project.

“(The study) was just enormously positive when it comes to locating a school in this area,” said Johnson. “The study looked at places like West Vancouver, Vancouver Island, Washington state and Alberta — all over Western Canada and Western U.S… and we’re also seeing interest from Asia, Hong Kong, England, and other places… where parents might also be interested in enrolling their kids in the ski club, for example.

“The outdoor education and recreation activities that are possible are very attractive for many parents, as well as the fact that Pemberton is an agricultural community and there are opportunities to learn from that as well.”

Proponents of the school are looking at an area of approximately 15 acres on the Ravens Crest lands, and have signed a memorandum of understanding with the developers. The school would share recreational facilities and sports fields that have been proposed as an amenity for a larger housing development on the land.

The site overlaps with the area that will be used for this summer’s Pemberton Festival.

The Village of Pemberton was also receptive of the idea, and both Mayor Jordan Sturdy and Councillor David MacKenzie made statements of support after reading the study.

“Pemberton seems the perfect place for this type of institution and so the results of the feasibility study… didn’t particularly surprise me,” said Sturdy. “The development of knowledge and education-based business presents exciting prospects for the Pemberton Valley. Quality employment opportunities, as well as a commitment to local agriculture, are two aspects of this proposal that stand out as helping build this community into the future.”

MacKenzie also noted the economic potential of the school, which will house anywhere from 600 to 1,000 students — probably from Grades 7 to 12 in the beginning and eventually for students from Grades 1 to 12.

“The positive economic stimulation connected to such a project equals job opportunities in a non-consumptive industry,” he said. “Such an initiative will bring balance in helping to sustain our valley’s diverse economy while complementing our current mix of agriculture, forestry and tourism.”

The goal is to complete the first phase by 2010, says Johnson, even if it means using portables to hold classes.

There are several options for financing the school, from issuing bonds to parents to applying for financing from a Saudi Arabian investment fund. GEMS Education also has considerable resources, although its representative schools are expected to be self-sustaining.

Johnson says the positive study and support of GEMS will make it easier to explore financing options, and he expects to have a solution soon. A financing agreement would then allow proponents to apply to the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District to rezone the property. The property would come within the Village of Pemberton boundaries if the village succeeds in its bid for a boundary extension.

According to Kim Landry, the newly appointed director of the GEMS Whistler School Committee, the project already has verbal support from the SLRD, Village of Pemberton, and MLA Joan McIntyre, as well as roughly 100 parents from West Vancouver, North Vancouver and Sea to Sky. As well, she says they have the support of local First Nations in Mount Currie, with plans to accept students through a bursary program.

Although decisions regarding financing and rezoning are crucial, she’s confident that the project has enough support to go ahead.

“There was a real emphasis in the study on the Pemberton area… and the results showed there is a need and enough students to create that need in our area,” she said. “This won’t be a drain on the public school system, we won’t be drawing people away… except for the students who are already candidates for private schools. Right now the only options are the schools in West Vancouver and Vancouver Island, which is too far for some parents. There are also a lot of people who have second homes in Whistler, and are looking to spend more time up here, or would come up on weekends to be closer to their kids.”

Pemberton is the perfect location for the school, added Landry, given its proximity to activities in Whistler, and the rural nature of Pemberton.

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