The proponent behind the Garibaldi at Squamish ski resort is convinced the potential development would complement Whistler Blackcomb and grow the regional market for ski tourism.
Following concerns raised by Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden and other resort officials at last week’s Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) Convention over the economic viability of a possible ski operator located 60 kilometres from Whistler, proponent Wolfgang Richter outlined his vision for Garibaldi at Squamish.
“We know the market we’re in, we know we want to add to that market and its overall attractiveness to the international market, and provide new product to the region,” said Richter, the vice chairman of Garibaldi at Squamish Inc. “The word competition immediately sounds adversarial, and I don’t like that to start with. We’re neighbours, we want to be complementing what’s there, we obviously benefit from it, so we want to give back to what we benefit from. Whatever that looks like, we want to grow the market.”
Wilhelm-Morden, Coun. Jack Crompton and Chief Administrative Officer Mike Furey had a short meeting with B.C.’s environmental minister Mary Polak at last week’s conference, outlining their issues with the project proposal. The Ministry of Environment is responsible for an environmental assessment of the proposed resort that will also look at the possible social and economic impacts of the development.
“The social and economic information that the Ministry currently has is dated, it’s from 2007, and the world has changed considerably since that time,” said Wilhelm-Morden. “The Ministry has recognized that and they’re going to update their social and economic information.”
In her meeting with the minister, Wilhelm-Morden reiterated the economic benefits the resort brings to the province, noting that Whistler generates $1.3 billion in GDP a year, provides $405 million in annual tax revenues and is responsible for 22.5 per cent of B.C.’s annual tourism export revenue.
“Our destination visitors, as everyone knows, are down, and we are relying more and more on regional visitors. To put a competing resort 30 minutes away from Whistler doesn’t make any sense,” Wilhelm-Morden said.
A recent study compiled by the municipality’s Economic Partnership Initiative found that regional visitors account for 19 per cent of Whistler’s annual spending, while destination visitors are responsible for 68 per cent.
Wilhelm-Morden also questioned the concept of a ski resort cluster model that has proven effective for other popular mountain destinations, such as in Colorado, saying the region doesn’t have the population to support that kind of approach. The municipality has retained the services of EcoSign Mountain Resort Planners to further analyze the cluster resort model before the RMOW provides written submissions to the province when the social and economic portion of the environmental assessment is opened.
“Whistler is an economic engine for the province, but despite our success and our international recognition, we still struggle, we’ve got 50 per cent occupancy, we are overbuilt, so we have to be careful,” she said.
Most recent figures show the state of Colorado has a population of approximately 5.1 million, while B.C. has a population of 4.4 million. The most populous cities in each territory also have similar populations, with Denver coming in at nearly 620,000 and Vancouver at 603,500. The problem, according to Wilhelm-Morden, is a lack of air access for international visitors.
“You’ve got an airport in Aspen, for example, we don’t have that air traffic directly into our resort,” she said.
Tourism Whistler president and CEO Barrett Fisher also questioned the long-term economic viability of the proposed Garibaldi at Squamish resort.
“Based on the size and scope of the proposed development, and the existing accommodation capacity in Whistler, we certainly have a concern that a project of this magnitude may not be economically sustainable. When we look at the long-term success of the region, we should be mindful of the economic realities and potential challenges of creating greater supply than demand,” she said in an email.
Richter called opposition from Whistler leaders to a cluster model “sort of a knee-jerk response from people who have a bit of fear of the unknown,” and that offering a new “boutique” resort experience to guests would only enhance the region’s attractiveness to potential visitors.
“How do you grow the market? You renew your product and provide new product,” he said. “We have to be competitive, but I think in a complimentary way, and not just build the same old thing, some of which has been around for almost 50 years. I’ve been skiing Whistler since 1966, which was the first year. I’ve seen it grow and it’s wonderful, but it’s getting old.”
The Garibaldi at Squamish subject site is approximately 12,000 acres, said Richter, offering around 3,000 feet of skiable vertical terrain. Based on skier capacity and the proponents’ master plan, the developers have been pre-approved for 22,508 bed units phased over 25 years.
The proponents hope the have the environmental portion of the provincial assessment completed by the end of the year.
A representative from Whistler Blackcomb declined to comment.