B.C. approves a multi-billion dollar ski resort that the industry doesn’t want

Garibaldi at Squamish promises to turn B.C. into an international ski mecca, according to proponents. That is, if it ever gets built

Jim Chu, a VP with the Aquilini Group, is pushing for a new resort in Squamish.

Garibaldi at Squamish promises to turn B.C. into an international ski mecca, according to proponents. That is, if it ever gets built

Editor’s note: on January 29th the provincial government gave environmental assessment approval to Garibaldi at Squamish. The project remains contentious. 

A battle over a proposed $3-billion, four-season resort on the slopes of Garibaldi Mountain is reaching a fever pitch, with the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office (BCEAO) nearing completion of its review and the provincial government expected to give it a thumbs up or down by early 2016.

Dubbed Garibaldi at Squamish, the project was first conceived in the 1990s by Wolfgang Richter, a former Lower Mainland high-school teacher and National Film Board staffer with no previous property or resort development experience. Richter, founder and vice-president of Garibaldi at Squamish Inc., now has two big-name financial backers: the Aquilini Group, which owns the Vancouver Canucks and a diverse portfolio of other real estate, hospitality and agriculture holdings; and Northland Properties, the Gaglardi family enterprise that includes the Dallas Stars hockey team, Revelstoke Mountain Resort and Sandman Hotel Group.

The unlikely coalition (the Aquilinis and Gaglardis famously went to court for control of the Canucks) promises a resort of more than 20 lifts, 6,500 metres of commercial space, 1,500 hotel rooms and more than 2,000 residential units at the Brohm Ride village site overlooking the city of Squamish. But Garibaldi’s path to completion is far from certain. In addition to the unknown outcome of the BCEAO review, business and community leaders in Whistler and elsewhere have been lining up against the project, saying the resort will siphon business way from other operators at a time when skier visitor numbers are flat in B.C. They also argue that its southwest-facing location and proximity to the warming influence of Howe Sound make it highly vulnerable to climate change.

“British Columbia is known for great skiing but new resorts need to be additive,” says David Brownlie, president and CEO of Whistler Blackcomb. “Ninety percent of [Garibaldi’s] visitors will be cannibalized from other operators. The development is not viable in terms of terrain and snow, and there’s too much real estate.” Whistler mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, meanwhile, calls the scheme a “real estate grab” for cheap provincial crown land.

That criticism has dogged similar plans for decades—as far back as the 1960s, when the idea for a ski resort on Brohm Ridge was first floated. In 1991, the NDP government of Mike Harcourt rejected an early incarnation of Richter’s proposal, judging it “not viable due to inadequate ski terrain, a lack of features necessary to support a four-season resort and too much real estate in relation to mountain skier capacity.” The current proposal—arguably the most advanced yet—has also raised serious questions from those who’ve closely examined the numbers. A consultant hired by the province, as part of the BCEAO process, recommended cutting Garibaldi’s estimate of 730,000 annual skier visits in half and called the summer estimates “overly optimistic.”

Even what might be expected to be proponent allies are raising red flags. In a written statement to the BCEAO, David Lynn, president and CEO of Canada West Ski Area’s Association (CWSAA), expressed concern “that approval of this project could have a detrimental impact on the ski industry of British Columbia,” noting that the proposal comes at a time when skier visits in B.C. have remained stagnant, at 6.1 million annual visitors, and between 26 and 43 per cent of ski areas are reporting financial losses.

Jim Chu, former Vancouver Police Department chief and now VP of special projects and partnerships for the Aquilini Group, says he understands why people in Whistler advocate strongly for their community but says that his group has no interest in waging war with its neighbours. The Aquilini Group’s involvement in Garibaldi dates back two decades and Chu believes strongly that their proposal will add to and not detract from B.C.’s resort tourism offerings—creating a sort of “cluster effect,” similar to Utah or Colorado, which will draw many more tourists.  

“People forget that our focus is not just on skiing. We’re going to be an all-season playground for bikers, hikers and other active people that’s affordable and accessible,” Chu says, adding that the project’s 20-year build-out will generate 2,500 jobs in tourism and $50 million in annual tax revenue for the B.C. government. He stands firmly by visitor estimates, and says the resort aims to capitalize on the Asian market—which the Aquilini Group expects to continue growing in importance—and market to local visible minorities, leveraging the fact that Garibaldi would be half an hour closer than Whistler to the all-important Lower Mainland market.

Surprisingly, in Squamish itself, few seem to be taking the Garibaldi project too seriously after decades of discussion. Suzanne McCrimmon, executive director of the Squamish Chamber of Commerce, says the chamber hosted a lunchtime presentation last June by Aquilini Group executive David Negrin that didn’t result in a single question from the audience. “To be honest I haven’t heard a lot of people talking about it around town,” McCrimmon says.