BY SARAH BERMAN, VICE.COM
You might call Jumbo the sleepiest town in British Columbia. Perched between four glaciers in East Kootenay’s Purcell Mountains, it’s a municipality with no streets, no houses, and no people.
Jumbo Mayor Greg Deck was appointed to serve this grizzly bear-populated wilderness in 2012. He and his two-person council meet once a month in the nearby village of Radium to pass bylaws, draft annual reports, and wait around for a ski resort that may never exist. As court challenges, expired permits, and now avalanche hazards throw the billion-dollar Jumbo Glacier Resort project into peril, it’s unlikely this vacant town will be welcoming human residents anytime soon.
Italian-born architect Oberto Oberti first proposed a 6,250-bed resort and real estate development for the valley in 1991. Oberti’s “master plan” includes 23 all-season ski lifts, a 3,000-metre high gondola, hotels, condos, shops, and chalets.
Since its inception, the project has faced opposition from environmentalists, local governments, First Nations, competing ski businesses, and hockey hall-of-famer Scott Niedermayer. The Ktunaxa Nation says the area is sacred; activists stress the project’s impacts on grizzly migration; and neighbours argue BC’s tourism market can’t sustain the massive development. Nevertheless the project stumbled through 24 years of public consultation, lobbying, legal suits, funding troubles, and permit extensions, until the province passed new legislation allowing Jumbo to incorporate as a resident-free “mountain resort municipality” in 2012. (This move resolved a zoning dilemma without a drawn-out public hearing.)
Rendering of a possible Jumbo resort from government documents
Deck was a good sport when I called to ask what a mayor with no constituents does with his time. Most days he tends a campground on the outskirts of Radium, where he previously served as mayor for 18 years.
With no tax base, Jumbo Glacier Mountain Resort Municipality relies on provincial government funds to cover its modest day-to-day costs. “We run a really efficient operation,” he assures me. “We contract with the Village of Radium to get part-time help from their admin [staff], their treasurer and their planner.”
By the end of 2015, BC will have transferred $650,000 to the empty town. By 2019, Jumbo is expected to soak up an additional $1 million taxpayer dollars, according to its latest financial plan.
Deck tells me legal fees are a recurring line item. “It would be nice if people quit suing us,” he says. “It’s one of the bigger costs that we have.”
Jumbo’s financial statements show most government transfers remain unspent in a “capital reserve” account. Deck says the ski town will draw on this money to pay for public projects and infrastructure once all the buildings and people finally arrive. So far, the only existing public asset is a small bridge.
Meanwhile, the resort company’s construction plans have suffered some awkward setbacks. So far Jumbo Glacier Resort has managed to pour not one but two concrete building foundations in avalanche hazard zones.
According to a government-ordered risk report the majority of Jumbo’s partially-built “service building” is in a high-risk avalanche zone, and most of a “daylodge” foundation is in a moderate-risk zone. The province issued a stop-work order on April 24, stating the resort structures do not meet the safety commitments of Jumbo’s environmental assessment.
“The location of the daylodge and of the service building had to be changed at the last minute from the location in the master plan,” explains a company statement authorized by Jumbo’s vice president Tommaso Oberti. “[Aerial] photography and surveys had failed to identify a small creek that crossed the intended dayldoge [sic] site.” The company claims previous avalanche studies cleared these areas for building, and that modern avalanche mitigation techniques will prevent threats to public safety.
Jumbo’s competitors disagree, citing Canadian Avalanche Association guidelines. “In North America, we don’t build temporary or permanent structures in an avalanche path,” says Graham Holt, general manager of RK Heliski, a company that first warned the province of the avalanche threat in October last year.
Mayor Deck says the avalanche debate strains an already tight construction window. With such high elevation, Jumbo Valley snow prevents construction from happening for a large chunk of the year. Which means Deck could spend an extra year or more waiting for his town to start attracting human residents.
The avalanche risk drama comes after the company’s environmental certificates expired in October 2014. To renew the certificates, Jumbo had to prove to the government “substantial” development was already underway. The company began rushed construction just a few days before the October deadline. Seven months later, the government has yet to rule whether or not the two building foundations represent a “substantial start.”
In urgent correspondence with the government, the company makes clear big money is riding on two slabs of concrete. “Given the 24 years of delays incurred by the project, and the millions of dollars spent in the approval process, the project’s investors are anxious to generate revenue and begin operations as soon as possible,” reads a November submission. “With 325 tonnes of concrete and 125 tonnes of steel in the ground we believe that physically the project has been ‘substantially started.'”
Environment Minister Mary Polak is expected to release a decision by early to mid-June. “Now that the [avalanche] compliance determination has been made, the environmental assessment office will be proceeding with the substantial start determination for the project,” an environment ministry spokesperson confirmed in an emailed statement. “We will incorporate the avalanche report findings into the substantial start determination report to the minister.”
As a municipal budget hangs in the balance, the project’s founder isn’t taking no for an answer. In a letter to the Columbia Valley Pioneer, president Oberto Oberti declared: “the project will not be stopped by games of words; we trust that the Canadian justice system would not permit it and we expect that the legal route will not be necessary.”