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Vancouver man's proposed ski resort garners support from government, First Nations

An illustration of the proposed Valemount resort. Simpcw First Nation Chief Nathan Matthew says the location ‘rivals anything you want to compare to it.’

Photo courtesy of Valemount Glacier Destinations Ltd.

Standing on top of a mountain, stirred by the force of nature all around him, Oberto Oberti always undergoes something like a religious experience. He has likened it to standing inside a Gothic cathedral.

Mountains have been a constant in Mr. Oberti's life. He grew up in northern Italy near the Alps and skied at Zermatt and St. Moritz in Switzerland, icons of winter. He immigrated to Canada in the mid-1960s, to Vancouver. He is an architect by trade, but mountains – and building ski resorts, cathedrals in the wilderness – are his passion.

In 2000, Mr. Oberti helped open Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, near Golden in eastern British Columbia. But he is better known for the quarter-century saga of the proposed – and forever stalled – Jumbo Glacier Resort, south of Golden and near Invermere. Jumbo was beset by challenges: fierce local opposition, Indigenous legal action and significant environmental questions.

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Today, however, at 73, Mr. Oberti is hoping to make a new dream in the mountains a reality. The place is among the high peaks of the Premier Range in the Cariboo Mountains, named for former prime ministers such as Pearson, Trudeau and Meighen. It is there, near the village of Valemount in remote northeastern B.C., hundreds of kilometres from the nearest airports, that a small group of investors imagines a large resort with skiing in winter and sightseeing in summer. Mr. Oberti helps lead the effort and is financially backed by Toronto developer Greg Marchant and Toronto condo salesman Hunter Milborne.

As with Jumbo, Valemount is all about big mountains and glaciers. Unlike Jumbo, Valemount Glacier Destination has garnered support.

Provincial approval was secured this spring. A big hurdle of financing remains – Mr. Marchant heads the effort to raise upward of $100-million – but the backers are confident construction will start next summer and operations will begin in 2019.

And on the environmental front, Valemount has not drawn attention, or criticism, whereas Jumbo withered under the rallying cry of Keep Jumbo Wild.

Valemount supporters include everyone from village locals and the Simpcw First Nation to BC Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver, who has praised the project as smart rural economic development married with optimal Indigenous relations.

"We were in at the very beginning of the planning," said Simpcw First Nation Chief Nathan Matthew. "We're often a second, or last, thought." Mr. Matthews venerated the location. "This is truly a beautiful area. People are searching for that wilderness experience. This rivals anything you want to compare it to."

Mr. Oberti first scouted the mountains of B.C. in the mid-1980s, to pinpoint locations for an ideal ski area. He looked for a combination of factors: tall mountains, grand vistas and ample snow. Valemount was one location. Jumbo was another.

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Mr. Oberti focused on Jumbo, an easier area to reach, four or so hours west of Calgary. Valemount is five hours west of Edmonton. A proposal for Jumbo was first filed in 1991.

Approval from the province of B.C. was secured in 2012 but thereafter, Mr. Oberti has said, the dream became a nightmare. Opposition mounted and the Jumbo team made mistakes. Among the numerous issues is a Supreme Court case against it from the Ktunaxa Nation that is continuing.

"I don't want to go into Jumbo. That turned in the wrong way," Mr. Oberti said in his Vancouver office, a rare deflated moment for the buoyant 73-year-old. ("Can you keep that as a secret?" he said about his age. "Because I'm very young still.")

While Mr. Oberti is known for the struggles of Jumbo, he also has his success at Kicking Horse, opened by Ballast Nedam, a Dutch construction company. The Jumbo battle hurt. With Valemount, Mr. Oberti is trying to keep a lower profile, even declining to be photographed for this story.

Still, with Valemount looking to follow in the path of Kicking Horse, rather than that of Jumbo, Mr. Oberti was billed earlier this year by Outside Magazine as "the man behind the biggest ski resorts on the planet."

Mr. Oberti is the dreamer. Joe Nusse is the local believer. Mr. Nusse grew up in Valemount and went to university in Edmonton and travelled before moving back home to the B.C. town. He opened two businesses – a weekly newspaper, and a contracting operation. The mountains have always been in Mr. Nusse's blood. He is a backcountry skier and has climbed Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains, a half-hour north of Valemount.

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"Valemount is not in the middle of nowhere," Mr. Nusse said. "Valemount is nowhere in the middle of everywhere. The end of the world can be a destination."

He pointed to famous mountain names such as Chamonix, in France, which is six hours southeast of Paris, and Jackson Hole, in Wyoming, a five-hour drive north of Salt Lake City.

In 2010, Mr. Nusse, with local officials, started a push for a development. Mr. Oberti was called in early 2011. Not long after, Mr. Oberti signed the first investor, Stephen Leahy, a mining executive whose office was down the hall from Mr. Oberti in downtown Vancouver. They got to know each other over lunches. Mr. Leahy, a skier, loved the Valemount mountains when he visited. "It blew us away," Mr. Leahy said.

Unlike Jumbo, Valemount didn't draw environmental ire. At Jumbo, a big problem was that the project sat in the middle of key grizzly bear territory. Wildsight, an environmental activist group in southeastern B.C., helped lead the fight against Jumbo. Wildsight didn't take on Valemount, in part because it is outside the group's core geographic area but also, executive director Robyn Duncan said, Valemount "does not share the wildlife impacts and sacred territory" issues Jumbo has.

With Valemount looking possible, the investors' money arrived in 2014, as Greg Marchant and Hunter Milborne came on board.

At the end of that year, the Valemount project raised $4.1-million from 25 investors, led by Mr. Marchant.

"Financing is a huge effort," said Mr. Leahy, executive chairman of Valemount Glacier Destination. "Typically, these projects are done by large corporations. The days of the guys starting Whistler in the sixties haven't been around for a while."

The first phase, estimated to cost $100-million, could feature up to eight lifts and 1,370 metres of top-to-bottom vertical.

No real estate development is planned at first, but a hotel at the base is expected to be built early on. The aim is to feature 2,000 beds, including hotel rooms, condos, town homes and some 200 luxury houses. The numbers are fewer than had been sketched for Jumbo. The Simpcw First Nation could be among the developers, with land inside and outside the project.

Selling resort real estate isn't always easy. Slow development and ownership changes are typical of such projects in the province. This is the case at Kicking Horse, three hours west of Calgary, and it is the same at Revelstoke Mountain Resort, five hours west of Calgary.

Revelstoke Mountain Resort opened in 2007, after $80-million was invested, but it then smashed headlong into the global economic collapse of 2008-09. Mr. Milborne was an early investor, but sold in the fall of 2008 as the billionaire Gaglardi family of Vancouver took over. The original idea, to spend $1-billion over 15 years, never came to fruition.

Revelstoke, Kicking Horse and Valemount are similar: big mountains, and located a several-hours-long drive through the mountains from a large city and airport.

For Valemount, the winter ambitions are modest. The goal is to draw about 180,000 skier visits, roughly one-tenth of Whistler Blackcomb. (On this scale, a tourist who skis four days counts as four visits.) Valemount's distant cold northern location could also be make is less susceptible to climate change, as the regularity of snow in the region becomes more dependable relative to the other places farther south.

The summer is an equally important part of the business plan. While Valemount is far from Edmonton, it is near Jasper National Park. There is already some summer tourist traffic on Highway 5 through Valemount. Project backers see money in moving people up to the peaks for views of the mountains and glaciers.

Places such as Valemount pin hope on "destination guests" who fly to the province and spend more money.

"I'm bullish on skiing – and tourism," said Christopher Nicholson, head of the Canada West Ski Areas Association. "We have a lot of what global tourists are looking for."

The village of Valemount, home to about 1,000 and established in 1962, needs a boost.

The last economic surge was in the mid-1990s, when the Slocan Forest Products sawmill was busy, but soon after the facility was hit by cutbacks.

It was on life-support for several years and was permanently closed in 2009.

Tourism, including snowmobiling in the winter, has been a plus.

The promise of the Valemount project has intrigued Andrew Weaver, who promoted it last year and whose party now supports B.C.'s new NDP government.

Mr. Weaver saw an "exciting opportunity" for rural economic development.

"Valemount is a natural hub for ecotourism," he said in a report on his website.

He also praised relations with the Simpcw First Nation, calling Valemount a "very rare kind of project" with "undertones of nation building … in this aligning of forces."

Mr. Nusse, the local project's champion, said the root of his idea was in something that could not be found elsewhere.

"The scale," Mr. Nusse said, "is grandiose."

It's the same as Mr. Oberti has dreamed since boyhood. It is what he saw at Jumbo. Valemount is his last shot.

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