First-blush reactions to a new proposal for a gondola next to the Stawamus Chief were guardedly positive this week despite the rough ride a similar proposal received when it was presented to the Squamish community seven years ago.
If approved, the Sea to Sky Gondola — plans for which were presented to various community groups early this week before the official launch announcement on Wednesday (June 29) — would use the same base area as the one that would have been used by the proponents of a gondola up the Chief when they presented the idea in 2004.
The elevation gain of the two proposals is also similar — approximately 2,500 feet for the 2004 proposal and 2,700 feet for the one announced this week. But while the ride proposed by Peter Alder and Paul Mathews in ’04 would have taken visitors to the top of the world’s second largest granite monolith, the latest one would take them to the crest of the next ridge to the south — the one leading to Mount Habrich, Sky Pilot and Goat Ridge.
The fact that it’s not going onto Squamish’s iconic — some might even call it sacred — mountain appears to make a significant difference, at least to some people.
Charlie Harrison, president of the Squamish Access Society (SAS), the climbing group that voiced strong opposition to the 2004 proposal, on Tuesday (June 28) said that while the group’s board hasn’t yet weighed any sort of position on the proposal, “Based on the initial information that’s been provided, it’s my opinion that this is a project that the climbing community could get behind.”
David Greenfield, who along with business partner Trevor Dunn of the North Vancouver-based company GroundEffects Development Inc. presented the idea to The Chief on Monday (June 27), said his firm was keenly aware of the community’s sentiments about alterations to the Stawamus Chief and, because of that, decided to put the Mount Habrich route forward instead.
“We had two names proposed for this project — one was ‘Sea to Sky Gondola’ and the other was ‘This is Not the Chief Gondola,’” Greenfield joked.
Greenfield, a former Intrawest employee who was involved in the development of Mont-Tremblant in Quebec as well as resort developments in the United States and Europe, said he recognizes that the Chief is a “sacred place” for First Nations and others. He said it’s also not a safe place to send people to do anything but sightsee.
The Sea to Sky Gondola, on the other hand, will provide views similar to those from atop the Chief and will offer access to trails ranging from a gentle one-kilometre loop near the top station to longer hiking and mountain biking experiences.
As well, he said, the top station would include a café and interpretive centre including displays and a movie about local First Nations culture and area flora and fauna.
The view from the top station “is a view nobody else has,” Greenfield said. “Nobody else has a fjord and the sea from a mountaintop. Whistler doesn’t have it; Vancouver doesn’t have it. We think it’s unique.”
He and Dunn stressed that capturing some of the more than 4 million vehicles that pass by Squamish on Highway 99 every year is the driving force behind the initiative, which they described as a “catalyst” for the future of Squamish tourism. Whereas most of the approximately 500,000 guests who visit Shannon Falls and Stawamus Chief provincial parks stop for an average of 20 minutes, the objective is to persuade far more of those who venture up the Sea to Sky Corridor to stop for several hours or more to take in the sights here.
“We think if you can hold people for three or four hours, you make Squamish more of a destination experience,” Greenfield said, adding that the proponents see lots of possibilities for tours packaging a gondola visit with trips to the Britannia Mine Museum and West Coast Railway Heritage Park, for example.
He and Dunn also talked about the possibility of making a water taxi ride from near the gondola base to the Oceanfront land and/or downtown Squamish a part of the experience.
Attracting and retaining more tourist visits should bolster restaurants, hotels and other tourism providers, Dunn said.
“We feel like a rising tide floats all boats,” Dunn said. “The more successful we are, the more successful the other tourism players will be.”
Katherine Folinsbee, Tourism Squamish coordinator, said that while her board likely won’t see the proposal until its next meeting, such a gondola “could be great for the community, so we’re interested in seeing how the proposal unfolds.
“I wasn’t here when the previous proposal came forward,” she said. “We (she and Lesley Weeks, Tourism Squamish’s manager of tourism development) definitely liked the fact that this presentation took care of and avoided some of the main concerns from the previous proposal. It doesn’t seem to intrude on those areas that people consider special and still provided some great areas that people can get to from the top.”
Harrison said that while having a gondola would provide better access to several new climbing routes, the idea is bound to give rise to concerns about human intrusion into wildlife habitat. As well, the fact that the gondola line would run through a portion of Stawamus Chief Provincial Park — the top station would be situated on Crown land outside the park — could raise some issues, he said.
“You’re going to be taking a lot more people into the backcountry, which always raises environmental issues,” Harrison said. “And I think there are issues with going through provincial park. That’s one of the issues that would need to be ironed out before we decide whether to provide the support.”
One local resident said she’s opposed to the idea for environmental reasons.
“Maybe if they were only doing the gondola it might not be so bad, but from what I hear they want to put in a gift shop and coffee shop or something,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Where do we stop encroaching on the backcountry, encroaching on wildlife? The wildlife is already being squeezed with all of our expansions.
“I moved here 10 years ago and never saw bears or cougars, but in the last few years they’re all over town because they’re struggling for space. It’s just money, right? That’s why we’re doing this.”
Greenfield and Dunn said they viewed Wednesday’s official announcement not as a launch for the project, but the launch of community consultations. They said those who have been brought into the discussion to date — Squamish Nation leaders as well as B.C. Parks, District of Squamish officials and others have had encouraging things to say. But they recognize that an extensive consultation and approval process lies ahead and that they welcome the process as a chance for input on ways to improve the overall product.
If all goes well, they envision an opening date for the gondola in the summer of 2013.
Mayor Greg Gardner on Thursday (June 30) said he has been briefed on the proposal. He declined comment on whether he thinks it’s a good idea but said it’s his understanding that the parcel of land on which the parking and gondola base would be located requires a rezoning from the District for the project to go ahead.
“There is a process for that that would include a public hearing, and we’re looking forward to having that dialogue,” he said.
Said the SAS’s Harrison, “The key message that we took away from the meeting is that this is a process. They are not starting construction tomorrow by any means, and this is just the start of their consultation process.”
— With files from Meagan Robertson, The Chief.