Despite the firm “no” from the last council on a proposal to build a university in Whistler, one of the men behind the development said the project is still alive — and kicking.
“Let’s face it, Whistler is in for some very difficult times, in my opinion,” said Doug Player, who has been pushing to build Whistler U on the Alpha Creek Lands, near Function Junction, for over two years.
“This is a $30 million opportunity with a green industry.”
Player took the recent municipal election as a chance to resurrect the university’s momentum. Green-and-white brochures were distributed at one All-Candidates’ meeting, and the proposal got significant airtime on VoteWhistler.com.
If built, Whistler U would host both undergraduate and graduate programs, with a focus on tourism, leadership and business executives.
But critics of the institution continue to worry that the Alpha Creek Lands, also known as the Zen Lands, are not suitable for development, since a portion of the site is wetland.
One of those disputers is Ken Melamed, who was re-elected mayor.
“I fundamentally disagree with Mr. Player that he thinks it is alive and kicking,” said Melamed.
“What was very obvious to many people was this was a real estate play masquerading as a university, as an attempt to diversity the economy.”
Instead, the mayor pointed to Tourism Whistler’s recent Memorandum of Understanding with Capilano University and the Sauder School of Business’s new Whistler residence program as two prime-time examples of Whistler’s interest in education.
Melamed also said the Alpha Creek lands — which are currently zoned for four single-family homes — are the second largest remaining valley bottom wetland habitat.
He added that the municipality has offered Player land swaps, including less environmentally sensitive spots to build his four homes. Player has declined these offers.
“The property owner has four lots, and one of them is virtually unbuildable because it is almost entirely on wetlands…. He has owned the land for a very long time, and he has always said that he has interest in developing it,” said Melamed.
Player said the mayor is only one vote on council, and with four new faces in the six council seats, he is hopeful the idea will gain some traction.
“While he has not been willing to even read the material we have provided, we certainly hope there may be others that suggest he does,” said Player. He declined to identify who on the new council-elect would support Whistler U.
Player also stressed that the university will not be built on the wetlands part of the Alpha Creek lands. In fact, he said, developers would preserve the sensitive area.
According to David Williamson, principal of the Cascade Environmental Resource Group, part of the 77-acre property is OK for development, and there is a lot of “disinformation” circulating about the site.
“What the preservation side is saying is that whatever you do adjacent to the wetlands will affect the wetlands, which is true. But whether the impact would be significantly adverse remains to be seen,” said Williamson, who was commissioned by the owner of the site to complete an environmental study of the lands in 2005.
But one of the new council-elect — Grant Lamont — said Whistler needs to redo the official community plan before making such decisions.
“I think that education is an important part of diversifying our economy and providing opportunities for people who live in our community, as well as people who travel here to attend them, but we have got to plan for it,” said Lamont.