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2010 Olympics
Municipal Politics

Olympics May Yet Spur Callaghan Valley Development

Whistler Sports Legacies runs venues built for 2010 Games, imagines a 'Nordic Park' hotel complex.

Bob Mackin 31 Aug

Bob Mackin is a regular contributor to The Tyee and reports regularly on Olympics and other sports related business stories. Read Mackin's previous Tyee stories.

The Callaghan Valley, home to the 2010 Olympics ski jumping and cross-country skiing, remains a sleepy preserve 12 kilometres off the Sea to Sky Highway with a tiny fraction of the skier visits Whistler Village gets a half-hour's drive away. But a buried report suggests building a hotel and housing could transform the Callaghan into a bustling destination.

The B.C. government saw the idea floated two years ago in a KPMG-authored report submitted to the Treasury Board. But local and regional planning officials claim they were taken by surprise this week when The Tyee asked about the report, which surfaced in late summer amid an almost year-long Freedom of Information saga.

Building a complex to house and host tourists in the Callaghan would likely pit conservationists against tourism and development industries, and trigger a debate about whether the Whistler area can sustain more congestion and tourist dollar competition. And whether this is the best way to pay a dividend on taxpayer millions already poured into the Callaghan to create a recreational area and a venue for the 2010 Games.

The report was among documents requested in September 2012 via Freedom of Information, but released in August 2013 during an appeal to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

"Our planning team is not aware of, or involved in, any studies regarding this matter," said Michele Comeau, spokesperson for the Resort Municipality of Whistler. Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) planning and development director, Kimberly Needham, said the SLRD is not involved in any housing studies in the Callaghan Valley.

Driving the idea, apparently, is Whistler Sport Legacies (WSL), the non-profit society that owns and operates the $270 million taxpayer-funded venues built for the 2010 Winter Olympics: Whistler Sliding Centre, Whistler Olympic Park and Whistler Athletes Centre at the former Whistler Olympic Village in Cheakamus Crossing. A $110 million Games Operating Trust was set-up by the federal and provincial governments to fund post-Games operations of the Whistler venues and the Richmond Olympic Oval. Last September, the provincial government said it committed $6.2 million to assist WSL's post-Olympic transition.

While Whistler Blackcomb Holdings reported 2.467 million skier visits to the alpine runs in Whistler Village last year, WSL's only annual report so far recorded 30,000 skier visits for 2010-11 to the Whistler Olympic Park.

"The Nordic Park [in Callaghan Valley] has the potential for overnight accommodation, which would provide [Whistler Sport Legacies] with an enhanced business model and the opportunity for revenue associated with real estate sales and utility sales," said the March 2011 KPMG report, which served as WSL's interim request for provincial funds. "An exploration of this process has begun and funds have been allocated to a more in-depth planning process and feasibility analysis."

The KPMG report, officially titled Financial Viability of the Olympic Legacy Facilities Operated by the Whistler 2010 Sport Legacies Society, conceded that Olympic sports like sliding and ski jumping are "not accessible for a broad audience, and their venues are difficult and costly to sustain. The question of the long-term viability of the Sliding Centre and the Nordic Park ski jumps has not been fully resolved."

The report for WSL pondered a built-up Nordic Park in the Callaghan, which has 56 kilometres of cross-country skiing trails, but no downhill runs. Spokesperson Patricia Leslie said: "We are not exploring the development of accommodation in the Callaghan right now."

What will become of the Callaghan if Aquilini Development gets its way and builds a 22,000-bed, four-season resort on Brohm Ridge near Squamish by 2016? The four-season Garibaldi at Squamish was opposed by SLRD directors in 2009, including Whistler's then-mayor Ken Melamed. Melamed worried a competing resort closer to Vancouver would harm Whistler economically. The provincial government put the environmental assessment process on hold in 2010, but the $5.5 billion proposal -- including two dozen ski lifts and a pair of golf courses -- is back on the drawing board.

Earlier dreams of a Whistler rival

Before the Callaghan Valley was chosen in 1998 as a potential site for cross-country skiing, biathlon, nordic combined and ski jumping, it was the proposed location for the Powder Mountain ski resort by West Vancouver's Nan and Dianne Hartwick. The mother-daughter duo won a 1985 public tender and were given approval in principle by the B.C. Social Credit government. Jack Kempf, then forests and lands minister, claimed then-premier Bill Vander Zalm told him in 1987 to "cease and desist" with the Hartwicks and favour Callaghan Resorts Inc., which was backed by ex-Social Credit attorney general Les Peterson.

The B.C. Court of Appeal upheld the 1999 B.C. Supreme Court dismissal of a breach of contract and abuse of office lawsuit filed by the Hartwicks. Just three weeks before the International Olympic Committee chose Vancouver's bid in July 2003, a special prosecutor's criminal investigation ended without charges.

The Whistler Olympic Park's neighbour is Callaghan Country Wilderness Adventures, which opened its nordic lodge in 1998. WSL and CCWA reached a trail-sharing agreement in August 2012 after mediation.

WSL's 2012 funding request said "visitation growth is relatively flat" and the Callaghan Valley is at a disadvantage because it is 12 km off the Sea to Sky Highway.

"Most of the skier visits are from the region with a smaller contingent of second home owners and resort visitors," said the funding request. "There are challenges to attracting resort visitors to the ski area without public transportation between Whistler and the Callaghan Valley particularly given the competition from Lost Lake Cross Country Ski Area which is within walking distance of Whistler Village."

Olympic legacy included mould

WSL operates 20 townhouse units and a 100-room lodge for training athletes in Cheakamus Crossing, the former Whistler Olympic Village. The lodge was closed for more than three months in late 2010 and early 2011 while VANOC contractor Britco dealt with moisture and mould.

The lodge also suffered because the kitchen originally planned was scuttled by pre-Games cost overruns. VANOC provided funding to build the kitchen for June 2012, the report said. "The outlook for business development for the lodge is uncertain as there is now a glut of properties available for rent in the Whistler area and the market is much softer than it once was. Improvements to the lodge and an investment in sales force have been made to try to improve occupancy levels over the coming year."

WSL's first annual report, for the year ended Sept. 30, 2011, showed $7,972,537 revenue and $7,538,418 expenses. After deductions for amortization, the net was $316,530. But a closer look reveals WSL relied on $2 million from a B.C. government transition grant and $2,691,482 from the Games Operating Trust. The Whistler Sliding Centre, its most complex and controversial venue, was the lowest performer with $578,306 revenue.

WSL president Roger Soane was unavailable for comment, but WSL spokeswoman Patricia Leslie said the latest financial report is expected to be approved by the board at its next meeting at the end of September. She said WSL has not applied for more provincial funding in 2013.

The 2007-incorporated WSL took over the venues from VANOC in June 2010, but the report said: "The initial years of WSL operating the three Whistler venues will continue to require substantial funding assistance from the Province of B.C. along with the allotted contributions from the Legacy Endowment and Contingency Funds."

Haunted by Kumaritashvili's death

In early 2011, the Whistler Sliding Centre launched sled-like skeleton rides for tourists and reported "400+" recreational users over six weeks. But its October 2010 business plan conceded it could be a tough sell after what happened on the opening day of the Games.

"Public perception as a result of the accident during the Games may also temper the appeal of the public programs," said WSL's October 2010 business plan. "There are few qualified pilots to drive bobsleighs for the public program, and there is also the challenge of attracting those qualified pilots to relocate to Whistler."

A safety audit, by Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, was ordered by a B.C. Coroners Service investigation into the Feb. 12, 2010 death of 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili near the end of his last training run. Kumaritashvili flew off his sled and died of blunt force trauma after his body struck an unpadded pole. The death was ruled an accident.

The IOC helped pay for the $900,000 safety audit through VANOC and committed $1.8 million for the building of a new men's start area for the luge track, "subject to the finalization of provincial funding support for the next three seasons."

The day after Kumaritashvili's death, lugers began using the women's start area. The new men's start area was used last February when Whistler hosted the world luge championships.

CBC's Fifth Estate reported in February 2011 that VANOC officials, including CEO John Furlong, were aware in March 2009 that athletes were reaching speeds faster than what the venue was designed for, but no major safety alterations were made before the Games.

The SAIT report claimed the track was safe, but made recommendations for improvements on data collection, record keeping, standard operating procedures, incident management and competency of athletes.

In a January 2013 follow-up, Fifth Estate reported SAIT did not consider vertical velocity and the effect of Kumaritashvili's sled hitting a curved joint on the last section of the track.  [Tyee]

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