David Strangway: Top Class

When David Strangway stepped down as UBC president he envisioned building B.C.'s first truly top class, secular university.

When David Strangway stepped down as UBC president he envisioned building B.C.’s first truly top class, secular university.

David Strangway asks his driver to pull over in the middle of a new bridge spanning Mashiter Creek high above Squamish. The $3.25-million structure isn’t that impressive, until you look over the edge at the rushing waters 30 metres below. It marks the entry to Strangwayland: a 240-acre tract that will house Quest University, a dream nearly 10 years in the making.

When he stepped down as president of UBC in 1987, Strangway envisioned building B.C.’s first secular private university. Today, he and his partners – chief among them Peter Ufford, former UBC VP – have secured the land, the district has granted them the zoning they need and the province has passed the Sea to Sky University Act, giving them the right to grant degrees. But the true genius in Strangway’s plan is the financing. Included in the zoning he wrangled from the District of Squamish is permission to build 960 units of residential housing. It took a bit of schmoozing to convince a benefactor to lend them $1.7 million to buy the 240-acre parcel of land for the university campus. But it wasn’t a tough sell, since big chunks of that land were slated for market housing and would soon be returning several multiples of that original investment.

It was when the university secured the land in late 2001 that Strangway knew his dream was within reach. “There were some tough moments,” notes the 71-year-old Strangway, slightly hunched in his old-school blue blazer and grey flannel pants. “But each time an issue came along, we regrouped and moved on, always knowing that we had a land asset in our back pockets.”

Strangway stands on a bluff overlooking the construction site of the emerging campus, gesturing expansively toward the wall of concrete forms that will soon be the library, then to the terraced rock that will be the student residences. He turns toward a bluff overlooking Squamish and Howe Sound. “Over there is the apartment complex.” The cleared swath of dirt and rock is a 2.4-acre parcel that Strangway and his partners sold to Wall Financial Corp. The developers will build two condo towers on the site and lease them back to the university. For at least the first few years, Quest University students will retire to condos with a panoramic view of Howe Sound after a hard day’s studying. Quest then has the option of either renewing its three-year lease or shuffling the students to the on-campus residences.

North of the condo site is a 47-acre chunk of land that Quest University sold to developers for $12 million. To the west, behind the campus, is another piece of land currently up for bid to developers. A third parcel will go to tender when market conditions are ripe. A considerable chunk of the $100-million construction cost will be financed by all this real estate development, while an undisclosed portion will come from donors, the most significant of whom is co-discoverer of the Ekati diamond mine, Stewart Blusson.

The first class of 160 students files onto campus in September 2007; their $20,000 tuition fees will cover operating costs and another $10,000 fee will cover room and board. Strangway plans to step aside and retire – for real this time – as soon as the university is in full operation. Where do he and his wife plan to spend his retirement? “Over there will be our house…”