The community of Valemount is located on Southern Yellowhead Highway 5, twenty kilometres south of the intersection with Yellowhead Highway 16 that connects Prince George to Edmonton. With a population (including the surrounding area) of about 2000, Valemount, like so many other rural communities in BC, used to have a forestry-based economy. In the case of Valemount, it was the Slocan mill that was the engine of their local economy. But that mill shut down for good over a decade ago.
The people of Valemount and their elected Mayor and Council were resilient. Today Valemount has emerged as a tourism centre in northeastern British Columbia. And it’s about to get a whole lot more exciting.
Valemount is a natural hub for ecotourism. It is a fully serviced community sitting next to Jasper National Park and Mount Robson Provincial Park. It’s also located near the head of Kinbasket Lake, created when BC Hydro’s Mica Dam was built on the Canoe River. Canoe river is the northernmost tributary within the Columbia River drainage basin. McLennan river, one of the easternmost tributaries of the Fraser River also flows along the northern edge of Valemount.
Whether it be skiing or snowshoeing in the winter or white water rafting, fishing, hiking or even golfing in the summer, Valemount has a diverse array of outdoor activities for the young and old. The town’s push to become an ecotourism hub even extends to the town’s high school, home to about 75 students. In 2012, the school became branded as a “mountain school”. The school developed curriculum and learning resources and activities involving outdoor and environmental themes in an attempt to arrest declining enrollment in the area.
Over the last few months I became more and more intrigued about the proposed Valemount Glacier Destination year round ski and sightseeing resort.
On Friday last week, shortly before meeting to learn more from key executives in the Pheidias group, Valemount Glacier Destination’s project proponent, I also met with Gord Stewart, Senior Vice President, and Philip Hochstein, President, of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of BC (ICBA). As noted on their website:
“The Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C. services and represents B.C.’s construction sector. ICBA’s 1,100 members build in the multi-family residential and Industrial, Commercial and Institutional (ICI) construction sectors and are involved in virtually all major capital projects in British Columbia.“
The purpose of my visit to the ICBA was to connect with Mr. Hochstein about his work with the ICBA and to learn more about the objectives and priorities of the ICBA and its member organizations. Our conversation centred around responsible resource development. The discussion was far reaching. I emphasized the need for bottom-up project development that starts with community involvement from day one, businesses internalizing externalities, and government clearly outlining and enforcing the regulatory environment and ensuring compliance with it. We both agreed that the construction industry recognizes that project development must be done responsibly. Mr. Hochstein’s challenge to me, a challenge that I accepted, was to define for him what “responsibly” means. I will be working on that in the weeks ahead.
This is an important challenge since in British Columbia, it seems like it is impossible for any resource project to move forward without meeting substantive resistance. In a forthcoming piece I will outline a number of key reasons why I perceive this to be the case as well as solutions as to how we might collectively move forward. The number one reason in my forthcoming post is this:
So what has this got to do with Valemount Glacier Destination — absolutely everything. Some of you might have been following the controversy surrounding a proposed ski development at Jumbo Glacier. Not only was the nearby town of Invermere opposed to the project, but so were the Ktunaxa Nation who ended up in the Supreme Court. But in every failure is the birth of a new opportunity and that is what is playing out now in Valemount.
In a rare example of community-driven success, the genesis of the entire project was actually a phone call from a small citizen delegation authorized by the mayor and council of Valemount in 2011. The phone call was a simple request that Oberto Oberti, distinguished architect and president of the Pheidias Group, consider a proposal similar to what was proposed in the Jumbo Valley for the Valemount area. The Valemount delegation (which would go on to form the Valemount Ski Society), outlined how a project with good elevations (over 3000m), summer skiing on glaciers, as well as world-class year-round sight seeing could be achieved in the immediate area around Valemount, but better still, without the construction of significant new roads into remote valleys. In short, a world-class high alpine development could be achieved in the front country of the Robson Valley, in a busier highway, with a more exclusive existing market-base (Edmonton and Jasper) as opposed to the more competitive market base of Calgary, Banff and the Kootenays. A project in Valemount would also be located very close to, but not within the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Mt. Robson Provincial, and Jasper National Parks. Oberto Oberti’s first action after receiving the phone call was to arrange a meeting with the Simpcw Nation. The resulting collaboration of local support has survived three changes in Mayor and Council at both the municipality of Valemount and the Simpcw First Nation and no organized opposition has yet to come forward against the project.
After some initial seed money to achieve a Master Development Agreement, a small group of Vancouver based investors who founded Valemount Glacier Destinations Ltd. was joined by Greg Marchant and Hunter Milborne of a larger Toronto investment community. As such, a very rare kind of project has emerged in which a small town joined forces with the local First Nation, solicited expertise from Vancouver, and will build Phase One entirely with no real estate pre-sales with Canadian investment. The undertones of Nation Building can not be denied in this aligning of forces. The Canadian investors are already lined up to make this project a reality and open for skiing by the time the 2017/18 ski season gets underway. But of course, that’s only if the BC government will give its final approval.
So what’s special about this project. I encourage you to see for yourself by browsing through the 325 page Master Plan. In particular, have a look at Appendix 3, Valemount Resort Environmental Impact Assessment put together by Vancouver-based Enkon Environmental Limited. I’ve seen a number of Environmental Assessments over the years and this one strikes me as a particularly fine example of what can be done.
The Pheidias Group have a vision for an environmentally sensitive year round ecotourism resort that will provide visitors to British Columbia with another destination rivaling that of Whister-Blackcomb. It will give visitors stunning views of Mount Robson, the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. The peak elevation of the site is on Mt. Arthur Meighen (3,205 metres). Compare this to the peak elevations at Whistler (2,240m), Blackcomb (2,440m), Sun Peaks (2,080m), Mount Washington (1,588m), and Big White (2,319). The high peak elevation is such that skiing on glaciers will likely be year round for quite some time to come. In addition, this elevation, coupled with a more northerly location bodes well for long term operations in light of ongoing global warming and the increased likelihood of more precipitation at lower elevations and latitudes in the form of rain instead of snow in the years ahead. What’s more, the resort has the potential to be carbon neutral by tapping into the nearby 5.7 MW Hystad Creek small scale hydro project. There’s also incredible geothermal energy potential in the region.
After meeting with the Pheidias Group, peppering them with questions, taking copious notes, and subsequently reading the Master Plan, it’s clear to me that this is an exciting project that I am keen to see move forward. So what’s the delay?
The irony is that for a government so proud of touting the “let’s get to yes” mantra and so chuffed with itself for proclaiming in law that the first Wednesday in March is “Red Tape Reduction Day“, the delay falls squarely in the realm of government red tape precluding the project from getting to yes.
The project is six months behind and the latest layer of red tape is a bizarre new requirement for a four lane 80 km/hr highway to take skiers on an 8km journey from Valemount to the Resort Base village.
Valemount Glacier Destination is an ecologically sensitive project that will provide an incredible economic stimulus to northeastern BC. In the words of Oberto Oberti, President of the Pheidias Group, “We want to work with nature, not against nature”.
If the BC government spent a fraction of the energy they are spending in a desperate attempt to land a hypothetical LNG facility on actually moving real projects forward, we would be leading North America in the development of a 21st century diversified economy.
The “forces of no” within the BC Liberal government really need to “get to yes” in a timely fashion on this project.