B.C.’s Rising Real Estate Stars

Only in B.C. would a past Playboy model, ?a former teen heartthrob and scads and scads ?of ex-NHLers try for a second career in ?real estate development. As many of them are finding out, it's not as easy as it looks.


Only in B.C. would a past Playboy model, 
a former teen heartthrob and scads and scads 
of ex-NHLers try for a second career in 
real estate development. As many of them are finding out, it’s not as easy as it looks.

As March turned to April, events within Vancouver Island’s land development industry unfolded with quotidian predictability. In Langford ex-NHLer Len Barrie’s Bear Mountain Resort received creditor protection. In Ladysmith a proposed condominium development by former pro Geoff Courtnall and film and TV star Pamela Anderson was put on indefinite hold. In Victoria there was brighter news as a mixed-use development involving former Canuck star Trevor Linden broke ground. And hey! Up in Nanaimo a basement was dug that involved no sport or entertainment celebrity whatsoever.

Indeed, all over B.C. that’s the kind of year it’s been: some good news, some bad news – but, good or bad, as much star power showing up in the business pages as in sports and entertainment. Let other actors and athletes go into rehab. Ours are more likely to be building the rehab centre, as long as the public-spirited act helps them get the rezoning they need to add 20 more units to the condo tower behind the 14th green.

But why? In most other jurisdictions, aging actors and ex-jocks are pitching diets or selling cars, not risking their savings and reputations to remake cities or turn placid mountaintops into suburban dreams. Is it because B.C. is somehow different? Or are the actors and athletes somehow different? Is it because they relish the challenge and rise to it? Or because, with their money and reputations, they are given the chances that others are denied?

To find out, we employed a simple methodology: we asked them. Their responses follow, but first a quick look at the astonishing array of development projects our celebrities have got themselves into.


Len Barrie: Bear Mountain

The tack-ready poster project for B.C.’s all-star NHL developer team is Len Barrie’s Bear Mountain Resort, just north of Victoria. It’s a story with more reversals and comebacks than Rocky, even if the ending lacks the same triumphal resolution: Late-round draft pick (Edmonton Oilers, 1988) parlays grit and puck smarts into up-and-down pro career, then retires to a bucolic course-side life in Victoria. The idyll ends abruptly after he cuts down trees on the neighbouring golf club’s property and is banished from the grounds for eternity. One day, riding a bike instead of a golf cart, he is struck by the revelation that the hills he is rolling through would make a great spot for a golf course. Giving 110 per cent to overcome numerous obstacles, crashing and banging through many objections and objectors, he secures the land and necessary permits, recruits 17 investors (including almost a dozen current and former NHLers) and in 2003 launches into one of the most audacious land developments Vancouver Island has ever known, complete with two golf courses and a planned 3,500 residential units.

For several years, all goes well – too well. Then like a high-flying rookie oblivious to an impending sophomore slump, the former centre buys the Tampa Bay Lightning in partnership with a Hollywood producer whom he would shortly stop speaking to. That subplot ends with Barrie stripped of the team. Meanwhile, ambitions for Bear Mountain spiral ever higher until it too receives a devastating head shot in the form of the 2008 financial crisis. Yet all is far from lost. Bouncing back from adversity, shaking off post-concussion syndrome, the development enjoys excellent sales in 2009. Yet it still needs help – assistance that is eventually found in the form of a promised cash infusion from a group in Dubai. But mere weeks after the money is found, Dubai proves to have critical cash-flow problems of its own, and the funds evaporate, ultimately leading to courtroom drama. In late March, the partnership is placed under Canada Creditor Arrangement Act protection, and Barrie is ousted as CEO.


Joel Savage: Wildstone

Barrie’s is a compelling story, one that has been told many times. Not nearly as well known is the uncannily similar situation that unfolded in Cranbrook, where Joel Savage, Barrie’s one-time Western Hockey League Victoria Cougars teammate, set about building Bear Mountain’s equally ambitious East Kootenays doppelgänger, Wildstone.

Although a first-round draft choice (Buffalo Sabres, 1988), Savage enjoyed even less NHL success than Barrie, playing only three games with the Buffalo Sabres before finishing his career in Europe. But the plans he and his partners in Havaday Developments laid out in 2006 were major league all the way. Like Bear Mountain, Wildstone was to have two golf courses, designed by Gary Player instead of Jack Nicklaus, while peppered across its 360 hectares would be no fewer than 3,000 residences – an extraordinarily ambitious goal given metro Cranbrook’s population of about 25,000. With little of the local opposition that plagued Barrie, Savage and company could do their crashing and banging in the marketplace and initially enjoyed respectable success in doing so. But by November 2008, after the financial crisis hit, bills were no longer being paid and work on the development had ceased. Havaday sold portions of the project in an attempt to remain in operation, but the gambit proved insufficient and the company ended up in receivership. In late 2009, a good chunk of what remained was purchased by Calgary-based Coast to Coast Developments, which hopes to open the first golf course, originally slated for 2008, in 2011.


Byron Dafoe: Trepanier Manor

In the Okanagan, the player-developer mantle belongs to Byron Dafoe, the goaltender who spent 12 years in the NHL with a variety of teams, retiring in 2004. That same year, he purchased 40 hectares of waterfront property north of Naramata, which he has subsequently subdivided as Eagle Mountain Estates. Dafoe also has interests in developments in Mexico, but his highest-profile project locally is Trepanier Manor in Peachland. The project is to include a five-star hotel along with 20 deluxe homes on a 10-hectare property adjacent to Ponderosa, the vintage golf course currently being redeveloped to a Greg Norman design. Dafoe says half the homes have been pre-sold, and construction on the homes and hotel could begin this fall.


Trevor Linden: West

While Barrie, Savage and Dafoe grew up in B.C., none played for the Canucks, a career deficiency that is definitely not shared by Trevor Linden. Even before his retirement in 2008, Linden was partnering on development projects, often with his brother, contractor Jamie Linden, and architect Howard Airey. Trevor Linden and Airey have collaborated on luxury residences on Vancouver’s West Side, a mixed-use 
residential-commercial complex called West in the Point Grey neighbourhood and, most recently, 601 Herald, a residential-commercial project in downtown Victoria. 


Geoff Courtnall: Arcadia

Finally, there is Geoff Courtnall, a Victoria boy and yet another Cougars alumnus, who scored 367 goals in 19 NHL seasons, including five with the exciting early-’90s Canucks. Courtnall’s first foray into large-scale development failed to find the back of the net, however – at least as far as many residents of Egmont on the Sunshine Coast were concerned. In 2002 he and partners purchased 2,400 hectares on a mountainside above the village and announced plans for a golf course and resort subdivision. When the partners ran into difficulties obtaining the necessary permits, they sold the property to a related company, which subsequently logged much of the mountain, causing considerable local clamour. In the years since, Courtnall has purchased and, in some cases, redeveloped several real estate holdings on Vancouver Island and in California, but all were low-key until the Ladysmith project came on.

Courtnall and his partner on the project, Lady­smith native Pamela Anderson, have been acquaintances for several years, and he describes Arcadia at Oyster Bay as her attempt to do something she can be proud of on a property formerly owned by her grandparents. Courtnall and Victoria-based Wessex Management obtained rezoning, and the sustainability-oriented 83-unit condomium-townhouse project was ready to proceed until Anderson got cold feet, he says. “I think the market is strong enough, but she wants to wait a little and see how things are going.” The two may be able to relaunch the project in the next year or so, he hopes.

If Anderson is able to get the project back on track, she will become something of a rarity: a B.C.-born or -based entertainment figure also involved in land development. IMAX film director Jon Long (Extreme) was the founding co-partner behind Kootenay Lake Estates, another development with sustainability ambitions, near Nelson, but the list of actors and musicians involved in the business is otherwise short, though some, such as actor Jason Priestley, have bought into vineyards and wineries. “Pro sports guys seem to congregate in recreational property development, which could be because they themselves like to golf and ski,” jokes an industry insider. “Celebrities appear to favour vineyard investments – possibly because of their dependencies.”

Jocks do seem to have an affinity for recreational development. Courtnall claims no particular love of golf personally but says a lot of ex-pros are severely smitten. And the list of athletes drawn to golf and skiing is not restricted to hockey players. There is the husband and wife skier team of Nancy Greene and Al Raine, who were major developers at Whistler before moving in the early 1990s to help launch the transformation of Todd Mountain into Sun Peaks with their Cahilty Lodge. Former Canadian ski team member and Olympian Reto Barrington is behind Fernie’s Blackstone, another golf course development that is behind schedule due to soft market conditions. Meanwhile, ex-Tour player Richard Zokol developed Merritt-area Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club, which will ultimately incorporate a residential component to go with a golf course already rated as one of the country’s best.


But why do they do it?

Zokol spent seven years building Sagebrush, starting in 2003, his last year playing on the Tour. He believes there are a lot of parallels between the sporting life and the developing one. The most important advantage enjoyed by athletes is the character that led to their success in sport, he believes. “It’s not about vision; it’s about belief. If you believe you can, you will. If you believe you can’t, you won’t. And belief is fuelled by never-ending pursuit of the goal.”

Architect Howard Airey, who works with Linden, sees another possible confluence between pro sports and the development industry: “the combination of being a team player while recognizing the role of leadership.”

The money and reputation that an ex-athlete typically bring to the table are secondary, in Zokol’s opinion. As a journeyman playing in the pre-Tiger era, he didn’t get rich, with less than $2 million in earnings over two decades. “You do have some leverage; you can open doors,” he says. “But you’ve earned that.”

In Canada pro hockey players do have advantages, including money to invest, but also carry some baggage. Byron Dafoe calls it a catch-22. “Yes, there is some 
recognition. But at the same time, people say ‘Here’s a dumb hockey player. What does he know?’”

Dafoe, Courtnall and Linden all cite the peripatetic existence of NHLers as a factor that pushed them toward land development. “I lived in seven or eight different cities,” says Dafoe, who became interested in architecture and design as a result. Linden has developed an intense fascination with the design process and promises upcoming projects that will strike many as rather outré. “I like the creative part,” he says. Courtnall says he’s always loved to build things but also has an unusual affection for another highly creative aspect of the business: the process of gaining approvals.

Perhaps strangely, the phenomenon of the jock developer appears to be largely restricted to B.C. Lots of pro golfers become designers, says Zokol, but only a few of the very biggest stars develop their own courses, as he did. Elsewhere in Canada and the U.S., there are scattered incidents of pro athletes with contracting companies and the like but very few doing the sophisticated developments that seem almost commonplace here.

Maybe it’s the athletes, but probably it has more to do with B.C. and the attributes that have made it a playground for developers. Weight loss isn’t a provincial fixation, and there’s a limit to how many cars can be sold – but building homes for Asians and Albertans, that’s something with enduring potential. Byron Dafoe, goalie turned developer, is not making an ironic commentary about a licence plate slogan when he says the province is “the best place on earth.”


The Starting Lineup

Imagine you’re the general manager of an NHL team in the mid to late ’90s and your roster looks like this. True, you’re desperately short on defence, but you do have two top goalies to trade, and there has to be a couple of kids you can bring up from the minors. Good thing the salary cap hasn’t been invented, because otherwise you’d never be able to sign all these top draft choices who, unbeknownst to you or them, will someday end up spending a good chunk of the money you’re paying them on B.C. land developments. – J.S.


Len Barrie 

Founding principal, Bear Mountain Resort
Selected Round 6, 124th overall by Edmonton Oilers, 1988


Joel Savage

Principal, Wildstone Resort

Round 1, 13th overall by Buffalo Sabres, 1988



Co-developer, 601 Herald and other projects
Round 1, second overall by 
Canucks, 1988



Partner, Arcadia at Oyster Bay and other 

Signed as undrafted free agent by Boston Bruins, 1983


Gary Roberts

Investor, Bear Mountain Resort

Round 1, 12th overall by Calgary Flames, 1984



Investor, Bear Mountain Resort
Selected Round 2, 27th overall by Calgary Flames, 1985


Ray Whitney

Investor, Bear Mountain Resort
Selected Round 2, 23rd overall by San Jose Sharks, 1991


Ryan Smyth

Investor, Bear Mountain Resort
Selected Round 1, sixth overall by Edmonton Oilers, 1994


Rob Niedermayer

Investor, Bear Mountain Resort
Selected Round 1, fifth overall by Florida Panthers, 1993



Investor, Bear Mountain Resort
Selected Round 2, 27th overall by Philadelphia Flyers, 1984



Rob Blake

Investor, Bear Mountain Resort

Selected Round 4, 70th overall by Los Angeles Kings, 1988


Byron Dafoe

Principal, Trepanier Manor and other developments
Selected Round 2, 35th overall by Washington Capitals, 1989


Trevor Kidd

Investor, Bear Mountain Resort

Selected Round 1, 11th overall by Calgary Flames, 1990

Mike Vernon

Investor, Bear Mountain Resort

Selected Round 3, 56th overall by Calgary Flames, 1981

Sean Burke

Investor, Bear Mountain Resort

Selected Round 2, 24th overall by New Jersey Devils, 1985