December 22, 2007, and a big lineup formed for the Revelation Gondola. The scene would look vaguely familiar today – a big powder day accompanied by a long line – but this day was different. This day was opening day for Revelstoke Mountain Resort, the biggest ski hill opening in decades, and people had driven from far away to take part. They lined up where the mid-station now is (the lower gondola would open the next year) and eagerly waited for the lifts to start turning.
The hill was about the half the size as it is today; only the upper gondola and Stoke Chair were open, and Upper North Bowl and Greely Bowl were out of bounds. Few people knew the terrain and it was open season on the chutes, bowls, glades and runs. By all accounts it was an epic day, with deep powder covering the entire mountain. The best Christmas present ever, people would proclaim.
It was the culmination of decades of dreaming, planning, and negotiating when a group of investors including Robert Powadiuk, Hunter Milborne and Don Simpson finally pulled together the financing to open the resort. Powadiuk and Milborne were from Ontario and saw Revelstoke’s potential, and Simpson was a Coloradan who had been coming here heli-skiing and had deep pockets and access to capital.
At the time, Revelstoke was a community that had been in a slow decline since the mid-’80s, when construction on the Revelstoke Dam finished and Downie Timber closed down for several years. Several thousand people had moved away, though for those who stayed, Revelstoke was a friendly, close-knit and affordable community tucked away between Selkirk and Monashee Mountains. It was on the Trans-Canada Highway, but hidden to the thousands of people who drove through every day. To many of them, Revelstoke was just a gasoline alley on the highway with a few fast food joints.
Locals weren’t content to let the community die. Downie re-opened and the city purchased its own Tree Farm License and started the Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation. Politicians and business leaders worked to recruit investors in a ski resort on Mount Mackenzie. Those efforts finally started to bear fruit in the mid-2000s.
Even before opening, the resort was having an impact on Revelstoke. Housing prices – and rents along with them – started climbing a few years earlier, when the resort and the province signed the Master Development Agreement. The plans promised the biggest ski resort in North America – some 10,000 acres of terrain, thousands of beds, 30 chairlifts and a golf course at full build-out. A map that was prominently on display showed lifts stretching across Mount Mackenzie, all the way from the Ripper Chair to Kokanee Bowl.
And people bought into the hype. When the first phase of condos and lots went on sale in February 2007, they sold out almost immediately. Buyers from across North America were eager to get in on the hottest new resort property in the world, and they forked over down payments on luxury condos in what was then known as the Nelsen Lodge.
The resort opened at just the right time, at the peak of a global real estate boom that nearly brought down the global economy when it burst in 2008. All that money that had been flowing freely around the world froze up when the Great Recession started. Amongst the tumult, the resort came close to closing after only one year of operation. It was saved by Northland Properties, a multi-billion dollar restaurant, hotel and property corporation that at the time was only a minor investor in RMR. To protect their investment, they took control of the resort, assuming the debts and keeping the lifts open.
Development at the resort continued, but at a much slower pace. Over the next few years, Northlands continued construction of the Nelsen Lodge (which they renamed the Sutton Place Hotel after acquiring that chain), and opened the Rockford restaurant. The Ripper Chair and lower gondola opened in 2008, but on the mountain, the growth all but stopped, with mostly incremental changes taking place. The biggest skiing development was the opening of the Turtle Creek beginner area at the base. The planned golf course was cancelled, as was a townhouse development.
The slowdown impacted the town as well. The City of Revelstoke was planning for rapid growth, with the population expected to soar over the next decade. Major planning exercises were started: the Unified Development Bylaw, Master Transportation Plan, new zoning bylaw, Parks, Recreation & Culture plan, a liquid waste management plan … the list goes on. All were controversial and few were finished as it became evident that they were too ambitious and planning for a future that may not come.
The expected growth never came, as many families left town due to rising prices, while some left because their homes were finally worth enough that they could sell and move on. When the next census numbers came out in 2011, they actually showed a slight decline in population, contrary to expectations.
The recession impacted other sectors – notably forestry. Downie Timber, the biggest employer in town, scaled back operations to one shift a day. It was helped by generous city tax cuts. No one wanted to see a repeat of the 1980s, when the mill closed down. Downtown, businesses struggled and also lobbied city hall for a lower tax burden. At the same time, the construction sector was booming thanks to the construction of Revelstoke Secondary School, Begbie View Elementary, the Best Western Plus hotel, and ongoing construction at the resort.
Real estate prices peaked in 2009 and then started a slow decline over the next few years. People that hoped to sell their 100-year-old, run down heritage home for $500,000 found themselves chasing the market downwards. They didn’t start going up again until 2015.
Meanwhile, awareness of the resort continued to grow. Revelstoke was no longer a backwater known only by die-hard backcountry riders and wealthy heli-skiers, but was becoming a destination. People started camping out for opening day, and you would have to show up a little earlier each year to get a good spot in line. Competition for first tracks became fiercer, unless you were willing to fork out cash for the resort’s First Tracks program.
In the city, there was a major turnover in business. In 2014, I compiled a list of businesses that had opened since 2009 and it was striking. There a massive turnover in downtown businesses, with new shops and restaurants opening where others had closed. Most were owned by young entrepreneurs drawn here by the resort.
In 2014, a major shift occurred when a new council was elected and Mark McKee, who was mayor from 2002 to 2008, was brought back in. The previous council had become deeply unpopular due to spending increases at city hall and rising property taxes. The new council promised to get a control on spending and be more business friendly.
At the same time, the entire economy was rebounding and development began anew in Revelstoke. The most notable were David and Shelley Evans, wealthy Whistler transplants who had quietly bought up several major properties and were now set to get moving. He first proposed Mackenzie Village – a major mixed-density development in Arrow Heights that brought out concerns that it would change the character of a single-family neighbourhood. Despite that it was approved, with many arguing it would bring housing diversity and economic development to town. The first phase of 48 units is supposed to open this month. They also proposed a boutique treehouse hotel development on the border of RMR, which became controversial when they unveiled the complete plans for a multi-hotel development that the resort claimed was parasitic and would hurt the ski hill. It was also approved.
The Evanses weren’t the only ones seeing Revelstoke’s potential. Single-family home construction has boomed over the last two years, most notably transforming Arrow Heights. Despite that, Revelstoke is facing a major housing crisis, with rental properties in short supply and a vacancy rate of practically zero. There’s numerous reasons for this – couples buying homes that were once rental housing, the growth of vacation rentals, and the lack of staff housing. Construction of affordable housing has moved at a snail’s pace, with only 12 units opening over the past 10 years.
The renewed growth has put major pressure on the city’s infrastructure and finances. A 2016 report says the city lists tens of millions in needed infrastructure projects, including a very expensive new sewer treatment plant.
At RMR, the lineups have gotten longer every year. The only major change on the mountain in winter has been the opening of a terrain park. The big development was The Pipe – a coaster ride down the lower mountain that proved a greater success than anyone imagined, attracting some 100,000 people in when it opened in 2016. It solved that age-old question – how do you get people off the Trans-Canada Highway and into Revelstoke?
Revelstoke has gotten busier every year. While the 2016 census showed a 500-person uptake in population, that doesn’t capture the number of seasonal residents and tourists that come here – numbers that have grown every year since the resort opened, according to hotel tax revenue collected.
As RMR turns 10, the risk of the resort closing is a distant memory. The resort has regularly reported growth in visits and has also put Revelstoke on the map and turned the community from a hidden gem on the Trans-Canada Highway to an international destination. The growth has spun off into the community, but also presented challenges, especially with regards to housing. It hasn’t been a bluebird powder day, but I’d say the face shots outnumber the core shots.
This article first appeared in the December 2017 print edition of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.