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Massif expansion moving too fast for some Add to ...

Le Massif's setting is breathtaking: a commanding vista high above the broad St. Lawrence River, the mountain nestled in the pristine beauty of the Charlevoix region about an hour's drive northeast of Quebec City.

Local residents hope Daniel Gauthier keeps it that way, even as the entrepreneur launches a major expansion of the small ski resort.

In its early days as a wild, rudimentary ski hill during the 1980s, intrepid skiers would ride to the top of Le Massif on snowmobiles or in school buses and then thread their way down in the deep snow, the thrill heightened by the dramatic illusion of being about to drop off the steeper runs straight into the ice-packed river. In time, lifts were installed and the mountain became a conventional, regional ski centre, but with a negligible hotel infrastructure.

Now, Le Massif is getting a massive makeover as a four-season "anti-resort" under Mr. Gauthier, a co-founder (with Guy Laliberté) of Cirque du Soleil who cashed out his stake in 2001 and bought the money-losing ski operation the following year for $9-million.

In keeping with his alt-circus roots, Mr. Gauthier is taking a novel approach to the $230-million project, putting the accent on sustainable development with a twist, including plans for "wind" cottages perched on gusty crags, cozy sleepover treehouses, a farmers' market, a railway, and lots of ecotourism and cultural events.

To be completed in the 2013-14 ski season, the new rustic-chic Massif aims to attract a more international clientele.

For the residents of nearby village Petite-Rivière-Saint-François, the project is welcome news. The expansion of the centre - which will include a rail link from Quebec City and on to La Malbaie further north - will mean hundreds more jobs, on a year-round basis, rather than seasonal ones.

But there are concerns that, for all Mr. Gauthier's sensitivity to local needs, the scheme has triggered an orgy of real estate development that is going far too quickly for the tiny community of 740.

The town recently imposed a moratorium on new real estate plans after more than 1,000 lots were sold for development over the past several years. The fear is that the huge influx of vacation and retiree homes will spoil the area's natural beauty, put pressure on the existing infrastructure, push up property values and thus price many locals out, and create a community of part-time residents who rent out to strangers for most of the year.

"There are a lot of developers' mouths watering," says Jean-Baptiste Boucher, owner of a local art gallery and head of the village's urban development committee.

"This is moving at a pace that's a little too fast," he said. "We're aware of the need for development but we must take the time to do this correctly. This is going to totally transform the region."

Mr. Gauthier, 51, applauds the moratorium and is a firm believer in a cautious approach to real estate development.

"The village is going to undergo a real estate boom," he said in an interview from his Quebec City office. "It's a matter of finding the right balance in all of that."

Jonathan Chagnon, whose Le Versant du Massif-Immobilier Inc. is a major developer of single-family homes in the area, says his company takes great care to ensure its buildings blend harmoniously into the landscape and that good relations are maintained with the population. The home prices range from $250,000 to $1-million.

"We are on excellent terms with the municipality and the local residents, and respect for the environment and architectural standards is very high," he said.

In addition, some reasonably priced housing is being built for locals who live and work there, he said.

Mr. Gauthier, who sometimes commutes between Quebec City and Le Massif in his private helicopter, says he's committed to low-density construction on his mountain. He insists he's limiting lodging on the slopes and at the hill's base to half of what it could be.

The development includes a four-star, 150-room hotel being built at Baie-Saint-Paul, about 19 kilometres from the ski hill, heated entirely with geothermal technology. There are also plans for some 450 rooms spread out in various configurations and locations on Le Massif and at its base. None are for sale; they are all overnight or rental units.

"We want this to be on a human scale," in contrast to the high-density approach taken at some major ski resorts, Mr. Gauthier said.

"We want a product that's different, innovative and in the vanguard of new trends in tourism," said Mr. Gauthier, who fell in love with Charlevoix when he hitchhiked there from Montreal for a brief stay in the summer of 1975, fresh out of high school.

He later ended up working at the youth hostel in Baie-Saint-Paul, where he met Mr. Laliberté and other dreamers behind the idea of a street busker-type show that eventually morphed into the wildly successful Cirque du Soleil.

He ran away with the circus when it moved to Quebec City in 1984 and then Montreal in 1985. But he says he always intended to return to the region. "The circus left Baie-Saint-Paul, but Baie-Saint-Paul never left me," said Mr. Gauthier, an avid "ski bum."

After deciding he had accomplished all that he wanted to as president of the Cirque, he left in 2001 with a fortune that made him independently wealthy but also with a desire for a new venture that would challenge him creatively.

Le Massif, a debt-ridden enterprise run by a not-for-profit group, came up for sale and he realized it fit the bill perfectly.

He remains friends with Mr. Laliberté, who has $10-million invested in Le Massif. The federal and Quebec governments are also in, for a total of $65-million.

"The idea is to do something that is of benefit to the region, that is inclusive," Mr. Gauthier said. He sees Le Massif as a venue that will help stitch together the various disparate elements in Charlevoix and enhance the region's value - including its two provincial parks and a casino at La Malbaie - as a tourist draw. Other attractions planned include a concert hall, spa and food exhibitions, and in the off season, hiking and biking in the area, which is designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

"We want this to be green, socially responsible development," he said.

Working in tandem with the local population on issues such as real estate development is part of that, he added. "You can never take the community for granted."

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