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Time is running out for Jumbo Glacier Resort

More than two decades after it was proposed, the Jumbo Glacier Resort is still a construct only on paper. But the plan to build North America's first year-round ski resort now has a concrete deadline that could reveal if it is, more accurately, a house of cards.

If construction isn't substantially under way by October, the provincial environmental approval certificate expires, and the proponent is back to square one. The Environmental Assessment Office requires evidence of physical work being completed. Precisely how much work is required to hold the permit is not spelled out, but staff will be looking for workers and equipment on site, supported by equipment maintenance facilities and accommodations for the construction crew.

After more than 20 years in process, this might be a story about red tape holding back investment – but at this point, it's not. This project has had enthusiastic support from the current B.C. government. One cabinet minister flew to France on his own dime to try to drum up investors. The province even created a resort municipality, provided a $200,000 budget and appointed a mayor and council to manage this still-empty wilderness.

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But local opposition, the weather, and perhaps the economy have not yet aligned in the project's favour.

The Ktunaxa Nation is seeking to kill the project in court. Last summer's construction plans were stalled after heavy rains washed out the access road. And the developer is cagey about whether he has secured financial backing for his $900-million construction plans.

The mayor of Jumbo, Greg Deck, is hoping all these setbacks will add up to an advantage, in a strange way. "It's been so difficult that it's not likely that a competitor will try this."

Mr. Deck's job as a municipal leader is unique in B.C. He has to borrow the chambers of a nearby town when his council meets. He doesn't have to deal with constituents, since there are no residents. "Barking dogs and noisy neighbours don't come up," he said, jokingly.

But he remains optimistic that his fiefdom will eventually be populated, starting with construction this year. Its location high in the Purcell Mountains, about 55 kilometres from Invermere, provides a uniquely reliable base for skiing. "If a resort can't be open for Christmas, nothing is going to save it," he said. "If you have a resort where you can book the American Thanksgiving, you have a different product."

But Kathryn Teneese, chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council, is also optimistic – that her community's battle against the resort is nearing a successful conclusion. The band was in court in January seeking a ruling to undo the province's approval for the project. The Ktunaxa say the project would disrupt their spiritual connection to the land, which they know as Qat'muk, the place where grizzly bear spirits gather.

That decision is likely months away, and she argues that the developer and any investors would be taking a risk starting construction before the courts have handed down a judgment. "I would be hesitant to invest in something where there was the possibility of upheaval," she said.

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It's a touchy subject for the proponent, Oberto Oberti of Glacier Resorts Inc. Through an e-mail exchange, Mr. Oberti declined to say whether his project has secured backers. Mr. Oberti said private negotiations are taking place, but "I would prefer not to have to touch this subject." He said opponents have scared off investors in the past through "intimidation campaigns … We wish to avoid any new opportunity for these kinds of activities in the future."

Norm Macdonald, the New Democratic MLA for Columbia River-Revelstoke, has sided with his constituents who oppose the project. He argues that the province should have demanded answers to whether there was private money to build the resort before it committed public money and handed off control of 6,000 hectares of land.

"I think the first thing a government would do is ask if there is actually money behind this project."

It is a reasonable suggestion. But this government has gone so far in promoting Jumbo Glacier as a resort, it cannot risk testing the foundation.

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