Gondola for the Squamish Chief Courts Controversy, Investors

Roadside display for the Sea to Sky Gondola.

The gondola that promises to pump up Squamish’s tourist trade is courting controversy on its ride up.

Billboards recently went up along the Sea-to-Sky highway for a future aerial tram between Shannon Falls the Squamish Chief that promises to transport visitors 2,700 ft. above Howe Sound.

The $18 million endeavour (according to Jayson Faulkner, general manager of the Sea to Sky Gondola project) is expected to be in operation by May 2014, transporting an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 guests each year to a lodge overlooking the Stawamus Chief. Construction began March 5, the day after developers received a permit for the base area of the gondola.

“About 9.5 million people travel the Sea-to-Sky highway each year and about half a million stop at either Shannon Falls or the Squamish Chief annually, and there’s really no facilities there at this point,” says  Faulkner. “The gondola will give us a chance to engage with those people and talk to them about what else is happening in Squamish that they would want to take advantage of, or come back in the next trip and experience.”

The project was financed through a limited partnership offering to a group of about fifty investors, based mainly in the Lower Mainland. The Sea to Sky Gondola was oversubscribed in its first round, a sign of strong investor confidence in the project.

A Gondola to Nowhere?

The proposed lodge at the top of the gondola.
Image courtesy Sea to Sky Gondola

The gondola’s seven towers will string across a 2.36-hectare strip of land wedged between Stawamus Chief Provincial Park and Shannon Falls, formerly designated Class A Provincial park land, the province’s most secure ledger of protection.

An amendment passed May 31, 2012 by the provincial legislature gave Sea to Sky Gondola right of way through the park.

Despite support from the municipality and provincial politicians, the redesignation has faced significant opposition from local park users and conservationists.

“Most of the hikers and climbers have little interest in a gondola to nowhere,” says Anders Ourom, a spokesperson for Friends of the Squamish Chief, a local group that opposes the development. “For tour bus packages, it very often includes a ride on the Grouse Gondola or the Whistler Peak-to-Peak, and to be blunt they’re both far superior products.”

Ourom compares Sea to Sky Gondola with Brohm Ridge, a failed ski resort that sits the shadow of the Black Tusk. Brohm flopped in the late 1960s and is now the speculative site of Garibaldi at Squamish, an ambitious ski resort development.

“It’s really difficult to see how its going to benefit downtown Squamish,” says Ourom, “Why should they be gambling with public land in a provincial park?”

A Future for the Sea-to-Sky Corridor

According to Sea To Sky Gondola’s project proposal, when the site is fully operational in the spring of 2014 it will employ 35-80 people.

The Sea To Sky Gondola is part of Squamish’s push for a tourism-based economy as the municipality’s former industrial lands, including one of the largest stretches of waterfront in the Lower Mainland, are now being marketed for redevelopment.

“With the investment in the highway, people in the Lower Mainland and the I5 corridor are starting to discover that Squamish is a place that you might either want to set up a business or come and live in,” says Faulkner.

The gondola, currently under construction will go up to a lodge 2,700 ft. above Howe Sound.