Whistler's $345M plan for a 'weather independent' resort no threat to skiing, says CEO

Whistler Blackcomb has a $345 million plan to make the resort "weather independent" with new year-round attractions for non-skiers, but it won't turn the town into a northern Disneyland, says the CEO.

"A focus on bringing the outdoors under cover ... means guests won't have to stop playing when Mother Nature doesn't cooperate," says the resort's new website promoting its Renaissance plan.

While snow levels at the popular ski resort have been good this past winter, in recent years warm weather has put a damper on the resort's winter season. At the same time the expansion of the Sea-To-Sky highway has already increased the number of summer visitors to the resort community.

CEO Dave Brownlie said the resort — and the community as a whole — has been planning for the effects of global warming and climate change since the early 90s.

"It was identified that we needed to strengthen our tourism business on a year-round basis. We needed to provide some resiliency over and above what we had for volatility of weather," said Brownlie.

He says only about six per cent of North Americans ski and snowboard, and the new activities will attract a much wider range of visitors, particularly outside the winter months.

"It's about what happens in May and June and September and October, when we are not so busy."

Whistler hoping for more snow for Christmas

There has been plenty of snow at Whistler this past winter, but the previous two seasons were not as cold. (CBC)

'Renaissance project'

The first phase of the so-called Renaissance project would cost up to $100 million and include a year-round indoor water-based play area at Blackcomb's upper base. The 163,000 square foot facility would include water slides, wave and surf simulators, cliff jumping and rock climbing.

There are also plans for a tree-top ropes course and a year-round mountain coaster. Other parts of the proposal include a suspension bridge and viewing platforms at the peak of Whistler Mountain, and an expansion of the Whistler Mountain Bike Park including 50 kilometers of new downhill mountain biking trails.

The resort also plans to expand its ski facilities by adding new snow school learning zones, a night skiing zone and more snowmaking on Blackcomb Mountain, and a new high-speed lift to connect Blackcomb's upper and lower bases.

Phases 2 and 3 would  include a new day lodge, and luxury real estate developments including 60 upscale townhomes.

The resort's owner Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. says the project still requires approvals from both municipal and provincial governments and successful negotiations with the Squamish and Lil'wat First Nations.

Whistler to create timed hiking trails

Whistler Blackcomb's plan to increase year-round visitors includes more hiking and biking trails. (The Canadian Press/Paul Morrison)

'A great day for Whistler'

The new attractions are expected to generate an extra 400,000 visitor days per year once the second stage is up and running, boosting Whistler annual visitor days into the range of nearly three million.

 Whistler Mayor Nancy Whilhelm-Morden has thrown her support behind the resort's plans today, calling the announcement "a very exciting day for Whistler."

"An announcement of $345 million in my town is a fantastic announcement," said Whilhelm-Morden.

She said the town already has plans in the works to upgrade its infrastructure to deal with the increasing number of visitors.

"We are very aware of some of the bottlenecks we have been having and have been working on them long before this announcement."

The mayor said there will be opportunities for residents to comment on the plan, starting with an open house held by the resort on Monday at the Westin Hotel.

Meanwhile Brownlie said he was not concerned that a second ski resort proposed for the Garibaldi area near Squamish could threaten Whistler's expansion plans, citing what he called a lack of both snow and local government support for the potential competitor.

Whistler Blackcomb

Skiing and boarding will remain the core of Whistler Blackcomb's operations, despite the year-round development plans, promises CEO Dave Brownlie (Eric Berger/ whistlerblackcomb.ca)

Still a ski town?

Brownlie also denied any suggestion that the new attractions would turn Whistler from a ski resort into a northern Disneyland

"Not at all," he said. "Skiing and snowboarding is what we are famous for, and we'll continue to invest so that we will be a leader in that area."

In fact, Brownlie expects the second stage of the Renaissance plan, which includes luxury accommodation, should provide the cash for some major investments higher on the mountain during the third stage.

"This will actually bring more investment to the core mountain product sooner, at the end of the day."

Brownlie said the four options being considered for future development up the mountain include:

  • Upgrading the Olympic beginner zone on Whistler.
  • Replacing the 30-year-old Wizard and Solar Coast chairs on Blackcomb with either covered six-pack chairs or a single gondola from the bottom to the top, and replacing the Cat Skinner chair with a high-speed quad chair.
  • A new gondola from the base of Creekside to the top of the Dave Murray Downhill run, to create more mid-mountain skiing on Whistler, and replacing Franz's chair and the T-bar with a single high-speed quad that would access lower Harmony Bowl.
  • Opening up the west side of Whistler Mountain (beyond the Peak to Creek run toward Function Junction) with new lifts, trails and snowmaking.

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