Vancouver 2010: An Olympic-sized gamble: Take the safe bet and move the nordic events to Cypress Bowl.
By: Tom McCarthy (2004/01/10)
On July 2nd, Vancouver won the right to host the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Not much has changed; there is little talk of the spectacle that will engulf the region in six years and a month. Construction schedules, however, have start dates that are creeping up with remarkable speed. Most of the major facility projects have scheduled start dates within a year. The earliest, the proposed Whistler Nordic Centre in the Callaghan Valley, is April 2004, only three months away.
The Whistler Nordic Centre is far and away the largest facility cost in the Olympic budget. The Bid Book lists its cost at $65 million. That does not include the additional millions it will cost to build the access road to the facility, deep in the heart of a breathtaking backcountry valley. At an estimated $102 million, the total cost of the facility is close to twice the price for the next most expensive facility, the $56 million speed skating oval at Simon Fraser.
Before we get into this massive cost, it might be worthwhile to look at another alternative staring us in the face. Instead of building a brand-new nordic centre in a remote location, why not have the cross-country races at the Hollyburn ski trails in Cypress Bowl Provincial Park? Developing those trails instead would cost far less, cause less environmental damage, preserve a treasured backcountry wilderness area, and would stand a far greater chance of seeing a continued and meaningful legacy post-Olympics.
Most Vancouverites are familiar with Cypress Bowl. It is the premier north shore winter recreation area; it boasts the best of the three downhill mountains, and has already agreed to host the freestyle and snowboard events in 2010. The Hollyburn cross-country trails are Vancouver's only groomed nordic skiing option. They have some 20k of wide classic and skating trails with great terrain of all difficulty levels. On a sunny weekend, they can have thousands of skiers in a day. It is a short commute from most of the GVRD, and only 20 minutes from Downtown.
Environmentally, Hollyburn is a far better choice than the Callaghan Valley. Understandably, the province is reluctant to allow any new developments to the Hollyburn site, given its proximity to Vancouver. However, the area is already very developed. Very few new trails, if any, would be required. The major damage would be in constructing the lodge and stadium, and expanding parking facilities. This would require some excavation to flatten and expand the current parking area. In comparison, the Callaghan Valley site is virtually untouched. There is a wilderness campsite and a popular backcountry lodge in the area currently. Development of the Nordic Centre would require a major road, excavation, and substantial land clearing. The value of the Callaghan area, from an environmental standpoint, is far greater than the value of the Hollyburn area.
The Callaghan Valley is a favourite playground for Vancouver's backcountry crowd. Hollyburn is also an accessible backcountry spot, but it could continue to be post-Olympics. The allure of the Callaghan Valley would be destroyed if there were a high-level nordic racing facility in the Valley. The future recreation potential of the two sites is no contest; Hollyburn wins in a landslide. The proximity to Vancouver would make it a daily choice for Vancouver skiers, whereas the Callaghan Valley site would not be a feasible evening trip. Hollyburn would receive many times more visitors in the post-Olympic years than Callaghan Valley.
For those who are concerned with the legacy aspects of the Vancouver Olympics, Callaghan Valley shouts out as the wrong choice. A key criteria for sustained post-Olympic use is the proximity to a major population base. Hollyburn is accessible for daily use by most residents of Greater Vancouver. Callaghan is not; a 1.5 hour drive is too far for daily use. It is conceivable that the Callaghan Valley site could market itself as a nordic destination, but it is unlikely to see close to the daily use figures that Hollyburn would. It is far more likely that it would turn into a white elephant. There is simply not a large enough population base in a nearby area to sustain daily use. Some might argue its use as a high-level training centre for nordic racing. But the one thing the nordic scene in Canada doesn't need is another facility. There are a number of great training and racing sites in Canada, in cities like Canmore, Alberta, Vernon, BC, Ottawa, and Quebec City. Canmore, the site of the 1988 Olympic nordic events, is the current headquarters of the National Ski Team. The Canmore Nordic Centre remains open only thanks to the National Ski Team's patronage and continued support from CODA, the Calgary 88 Olympic Development fund, and the province of Alberta. The ski scene does not need more facilities; it needs more skiers, and the way to do that is to ensure that there is a facility very near a large population base.
Nordic veterans who hear plans for the Callaghan Valley Nordic Centre shudder at its similarity to another project which has become an embarrassment for the federal and Ontario governments. In 1995, Thunder Bay, Ontario, hosted the FIS Nordic World Championships. The federal and provincial governments spent several million constructing the jumps, expanding the lodge, and building a world-class trail system. In two years, the lease operator closed the site because he couldn't turn a profit. The provincial government was unable to find a buyer, and so since 1997 the Big Thunder Nordic facility, a world-class, full-service nordic ski centre, has sat unused. The gates are locked because of liability concerns, and police ticket those who trespass. The last thing cross-country skiing, and the Vancouver Olympics, needs is a repeat of that experience.
Proponents of the Callaghan Valley site might argue that Hollyburn does not have enough land for the nordic centre, is a provincial protected area, does not receive enough snow, and would conflict with the Olympic events at Cypress Bowl. However, for far less money than it would cost to develop Callaghan, Hollyburn could construct a world-class stadium, seating, biathlon range, and have lots of room left for parking. It would involve substantial clearing of land, but far less than to develop Callaghan, as Hollyburn is already quite developed. Snow is impossible to predict, even in the Callaghan Valley, but Hollyburn has a near-perfect record for February skiing. Finally, events could be staggered between Hollyburn and Cypress Bowl, to maximize parking and ensure that congestion is not too great.
The lasting argument is why go big and expensive when it would be more sustainable to go smaller and closer to town? The Olympics have become a huge spectacle, requiring massive projects. The Callaghan Valley Nordic Centre is such a project. It would be, unquestionably, Canada's premier nordic site, and it would unquestionably provide breathtaking racing in 2010. The thing is, Canada already has a premier nordic site, and it doesn't need another one far away from a major population base. Nordic events at the Hollyburn trails could provide a suitably spectacular skiing experience, as anyone who has watched the sun set above Vancouver Island from the Powerline trail knows. It could be done far cheaper than at Callaghan Valley. And it could turn Vancouver into one of Canada's premier nordic development sites, with a large city, universities and jobs on the doorstep.
It's not too late, either; many Olympic hosts have changed plans long after they have won the bid. The upcoming winter Olympics, in Torino, Italy, has made several changes. An article in the Province in April of 2002, suggested that major changes could be made before 2010. John Furlong, the COO of the Vancouver bid, suggested at the time that it was a stretch to say that the plans that go into the Bid Book is what will definitely happen. For the benefit of all, and particularly for the benefit of nordic skiing in Canada, consider moving the Olympic venue to Hollyburn trails.