The site of a four-season mountain resort envisioned near Squamish “is not a good ski or resort area” and “will not support the skier volumes claimed by the proponent,” two people with extensive experience in the ski-resort development business say.
The president of Garibaldi at Squamish (GAS), though, passed off the comments to the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) by Paul Mathews and Roger McCarthy as “disingenuous,” adding that Mathews' comments amount to a “cheap shot” coming from someone who was once hired to assess the proposal and panned it.
In a five-page submission sent to the EAO during its recent 30-day GAS comment period, Mathews — the president of Whistler-based Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners — said he first visited the GAS site around 1978. In 1996, he worked for Grand Apex Development on a site assessment for an eight-lift, 7,900-skier-capacity development on Brohm Ridge.
In his letter, he questioned the proponents' claim of a 1,215-vertical-metre drop for the resort. “This [drop] is not skiable from top to bottom but rather, measured from the top of the highest lift to the bottom of the lowest lift, which is not skiable from point to point,” Mathews writes.
“We calculate about 725 metres verticle drop, which may be a minor point but indicative of how the Master Plan stretches the numbers.”
Mathews, whose company has prepared plans for some 380 resorts in 30 countries, states that as early as 1974, a report prepared by the same company that has prepared the current GAS master plan, assessing potential resort developments in the Sea to Sky Corridor, found that “Brohm Ridge was rejected due to poor terrain, too much rain, too much fog, steep rocky terrain and overall size,” Mathews wrote, adding that the effects of climate change will likely exacerbate that problem.
He also questioned the “cluster model” that GAS president Wolfgang Richter has used as a selling point for the resort — arguing that another destination ski resort will significantly increase the number of skiers coming to the area, not just draw skiers away from Whistler.
“At the very best, Garibaldi at Squamish is similar or equivalent to the Grouse, Mount Seymour, Hemlock, Manning Park or Mount Baker,” Mathews wrote. “All of those projects continue to struggle financially and maintain current market share.”
McCarthy, a current Whistler municipal councillor and longtime ski-industry executive, told the EAO in a one-page submission that the GAS terrain will support only about 60 per cent of the skier volumes that the proponents project.
“The terrain is convoluted, interrupted by cliffs and rock outcroppings,” he wrote.
“The Garibaldi at Squamish proposal is about a real estate development of 20,000 beds and should be looked at as nothing more or less than that. The resort itself will fail, with the legacy being 'The failed ski resort close to Whistler,'” he wrote.
If that were to occur, it would “put the reputation of an economic engine like Whistler at stake,” McCarthy wrote.
Added Mathews, “You will understand that I and Ecosign are the most pro-ski-area-development people on the planet, but knowing this site well, I must say that this is not a good ski or resort area and I predict that the terrain and weather will prove once again that this project is not viable.”
Richter, who has been involved with the resort proposal since the 1980s, on Friday (Jan. 24) referred to Mathews as a “Whistler acolyte,” or religious adherent. He was once hired to assess the GAS proposal and later helped with a competing proposal submitted by Concord Pacific in response to a request for proposals from the B.C. government, Richter said.
“He drinks Whistler as his Kool-Aid,” Richter said.
“We hired him to look at it and give us a thumbs up and he gave us a thumbs down,” he said. “It didn't kill us, so it must have been good for us. Every question you ask, every expert you talk to to tame the plans to suit the terrain has indicated that the proposal has what's needed to compete in the marketplace.”
Richter pointed out that the GAS base area is at 3,600 feet while Whistler's is at 2,200 feet, which gives GAS an advantage if and when average snow levels rise as a result of climate change.
GAS proponents believe their resort will draw destination skiers from around the world who might have skied at Whistler once or twice and are looking for a new experience, Richter said.
“My personal explanation that two and two equals five, is that if I've been here as a Los Angeleno skier, and I've been here two times, and I'm a skier, what's going to bring me back to ski here? Something new,” he said.
The comments from Mathews and McCarthy were among 406 received by the EAO from mid-December to mid-January.
Chris Hamilton, EAO executive project director, on Friday (Jan. 24) said that while officials were primarily seeking comments related to the issue of the proposed resort's water needs in this round, all comments were welcome and will be taken under consideration.
“All of it's valuable,” he said. “The scope of it was wider than just the water — we were looking at water, fish and wildlife, vegetation, and updating the socioeconomic information that had last been looked at the in early 2000s.
“I was really impressed with the local knowledge and how the area is used today. Those were really useful.”
Richter said GAS proponents last commissioned a report on the fiscal and socioeconomic impacts of the resort in 2009. The report, however, “was buried until recently” by officials at the District of Squamish. GAS proponents had to do a Freedom of Information request to get it released to the public, he said.
Some did submit comments related to GAS's plan to draw water from an aquifer in the Paradise Valley. Area resident Gary Turner questioned the timing of the water testing that was done in February — “the wettest time of year,” he said.
Turner decried GAS officials' reluctance to take into account long-term aquifer monitoring showing that during the drier summer months that indicates “a decrease in the aquifer level by as much as 25 feet from that of rainy-season levels.”
As well, Turner said, wells in the Paradise Valley have been subject to frequent flooding. “A study by the Auditor General's department states that the Paradise Valley aquifer is highly susceptible to contamination,” he wrote, adding that other infrastructure near the well sites, including power lines, could be knocked out during a flood.
One anonymous commenter from Squamish voiced support for GAS, saying it would cement the community's place as the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada, would boost the local economy and “allows us to continue to enjoy and recreate in mountainous terrain while enhancing access to Garibaldi Park for ski touring” and other activities.
GAS ski conditions would likely be similar to those at Whistler Blackcomb, where the most common complaint is that it's either too wet or too cloudy, the commenter wrote. Compared to North Shore resorts, the GAS base area “is situated at higher elevations, making it a unique, mountain-style village, differentiating it from other local infrastructure,” the commenter wrote.
Hamilton said that in the coming weeks, EAO officials plan to update the GAS supplemental application information requirements (SAIR), asking the proponents to answer some of the substantive concerns raised during the comment period.
The proponents will then have until June 2014 to submit a revised application, followed by another 30-day comment period that will include another public open house, Hamilton said. “The next stage we'll ask, 'Is this the information you wanted to see and what do you think of the proponents' answers?'” Hamilton said.
EAO officials will then prepare a report to be submitted to the appropriate ministers. For more information, visit www.eao.bc.ca