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‘It’s my life’s project,’ says Grant Costello, describing the Jumbo Valley. “At the end of the day, we’re going to have people skiing on glaciers in Canada.’ (Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail)
‘It’s my life’s project,’ says Grant Costello, describing the Jumbo Valley. “At the end of the day, we’re going to have people skiing on glaciers in Canada.’ (Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail)

DEVELOPMENT

Chasing the jumbo dream - backers swoon over glacier resort in B.C. Add to ...

Or take Dave Brownlie, president of Whistler Blackcomb. Jumbo, he says, “is absolutely unique. And it is totally differentiated from so much else – it’s far more high-alpine European glaciers. It’s absolutely beautiful. Like, absolutely magical.”

It has glaciers that, when developed, will provide an uninterrupted winter run with 1,715 metres of vertical drop, powder top to bottom. It has Lake of the Hanging Glacier, where chunks tumble thousands of feet from a glacier hanging off a peak onto another glacier, which in turn breaks into turquoise waters.

And it has Glacier Dome. This is how Mr. Costello describes the spot he hopes will one day feature a restaurant, accessible by a gondola year-round, even to those with disabilities: “You look anywhere on the horizon, you see glaciers and mountain tops. You look down, you’re looking at an alpine lake with icebergs floating in it.”

“Nothing,” he says. “compares with it.”

That view, Mr. Costello says, should lure visitors in droves. Jumbo is counting on summer tourists to bring in substantial revenue.

But any talk of revenue must face a thicket of thorny facts. Even at Whistler, which has created a huge array of off-season attractions – mountain biking, glacier skiing, sightseeing – summer accounts for just 15 per cent of revenue.

Then there’s Jumbo’s location: Whistler is inside of a five-hour drive for seven million people. Jumbo is a four-hour drive from Calgary, population one million, and visitors have to drive past some of Canada’s best-known ski areas – Lake Louise and Sunshine – to get to it. And those skiers aren’t growing in number in Canada. That means there’s really only one way to build a new hill: “market share war,” says Nate Fristoe, director of operations with RRC Associates, a Denver-based market research firm.

Plus, Jumbo is located in a part of B.C. that has suffered in recent years. Just ask Hank Swartout, who calls the Jumbo resort “the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.” Mr. Swartout was one of the backers of the Copper Point golf and condo development just outside Invermere, where the road to Jumbo begins. In 2008, Copper Point called itself “luxury’s new address.” The next year, it fell into receivership.

“I can tell you, the worst investment in my life has been investing in that valley,” Mr. Swartout says. He adds: “I sold some lots for as high as $260,000. Now I can’t get $70,000 for the next-door lot.”

And those in industry say the days of funding a ski hill through real-estate sales are not just waning. They are dead. As for Jumbo, “if they do it in a more intelligent and measured fashion, and limit their up-front development costs, it’s quite possible something there could work,” says Jon Peterson, a resort consultant. That, in fact, is what Jumbo is proposing, with its initial ambitions so tempered that it expects not to pave its road – although it will eventually need some real-estate sales to balance its books and propel growth.

But it faces a barrage of local opposition. Scott Niedermayer, the defenceman, was raised in Cranbrook not far from the Jumbo site. He has called the project a “jumbo mistake,” a sentiment echoed by provincial NDP Leader Adrian Dix, the head of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the Union of British Columbia Municipalities and the local Ktunaxa Nation, which has launched a legal challenge.

The criticism has had a tangible effect. Earlier this year, representatives from Compagnie des Alpes, a French company involved in some of Europe’s biggest ski resorts, came to visit Jumbo. They were contemplating an investment. According to Mr. Oberti, the ensuing uproar made them rethink that notion. (Compagnie des Alpes did not answer questions.) Instead, Mr. Oberti says, it’s more likely a private investor will step forward – although current long-standing investors have the means to build the resort, if they can be persuaded to pour in more money.

Mr. Oberti is actually designing another glacier resort near Valemont, B.C., which has the support of a local first nation. “If I was to start now, I would say to my original clients to go to Valemont, not to this one,” he says, referring to Jumbo.

Still, this would not be the first time skiers have embraced a place with odds stacked against it. People thought Whistler was crazy at first, too. But replicating that success could be difficult. Today, Whistler’s Mr. Brownlie says, “unfortunately, the overall market is not in a good place – and that’s the challenge.” But Jumbo would “add to B.C. as a world-class ski destination.”

For Mr. Oberti himself, though, it’s clear the years have taken a toll. Will Jumbo – can it – be built?

“That’s a good question. After 20 years, I thought it would be,” he says. “You tell me.”

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