Jumbo ski resort raises "developing" questions about secrecy

Part of Dogwood Initiative’s mandate is to help local people deal with local land use issues. Recently, we have heard from people concerned about Jumbo Glacier Resort, a major “four season” ski resort proposed for an undeveloped ecosystem in southeastern BC.

We began to look into Jumbo. Our first step was to learn who is behind the project. A preliminary investigation confirms a growing problem for communities facing major development proposals: the difficulty of finding out who is really behind the proposals. (For one facet of this problem, lack of shareholder information, see our recent stories about new laws heightening corporate secrecy, and how companies like EnCana exploit these laws.)

For major projects seeking environmental assessment certificates (for which the government is overdue to make a decision, in the case of Jumbo) or the land tenures required once a certificate is granted, the BC government’s review process does not require the applicant to reveal their partners or financial backers. As a result, it is difficult to communicate concerns about a project to the people who are making the decisions.

The proponent of the Jumbo project is Oberto Oberti, a Vancouver architect and, through his company Pheidias Project Management, developer. Jumbo is not the first ski resort he has promoted. In the 1990s, Mr Oberti obtained approval for the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden, BC. Once the project was completed, Mr Oberti stepped aside. He is now, apparently, not involved in the ski resort, which opened in 1999, according to its own website. We will come back to Kicking Horse in a moment.

So far, aside from Mr Oberti, we have been able to learn that the Japanese conglomerate Nikken may be part of the group seeking approval for the Jumbo ski resort. (We are still determining the extent of Nikken’s involvement.) It is likely there are other companies involved, but Mr Oberti is under no obligation to disclose them. Unfortunately, he has been unresponsive to the concerns raised about his application.

Since Mr Oberti has not indicated who is behind his proposal, and who will develop and run the resort if the government approves it, we have looked to his previous experience, with the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden, BC.

As noted above, it appears Mr Oberti no longer has any financial involvement in this 5-year-old resort. According to the resort’s website, its current project manager and major shareholder is Ballast Nedam International. (See footnote 1, below.). Ballast Nedam, in turn, has hired the same company that runs Grouse Mountain, in Vancouver, to handle the operation of the resort.

Seeing this link between Mr Oberti’s previous resort project and Ballast Nedam, we decided to look into the Dutch company, and to enquire whether it is currently or might become involved in Mr Oberti’s new venture.

We first researched Ballast Nedam (see below), and then wrote to the company to ask some questions.

Ballast Nedam responded quickly. In the interests of full disclosure, we have saved the company’s reply to our site. Regarding Ballast Nedam’s current relationship with Mr Oberti, Rene Kottman, the company’s Chair, says:

Ballast Nedam (or Kicking Horse) does not maintain a financial relationship with Mr. Oberti.

This statement seems to confirm that Mr Oberti no longer has any involvement in the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, lending credence to the possibility that, once Jumbo is approved, he may hand the project over to another company.

That company, or companies, will not include Ballast Nedam. Ballast Nedam stated, in the same letter, that it “will not participate (and has not considered this) in Jumbo Glacier.

However, since Ballast Nedam does control the Kicking Horse resort, we also asked the company some questions about its shareholders. (These are the kinds of questions that we would like to ask of any companies behind the Jumbo Glacier Resort, but cannot ask, due to the lack of transparency in the government’s approval process.)

Alhough Ballast Nedam refuses to comment on its ownership, public records indicate that the investment company Wedge International Holdings B.V. is a major shareholder in Ballast Nedam. The most recent information we obtained indicates that Wedge bought 24% of Ballast Nedam International in spring 2004.

Both Wedge and Ballast Nedam have their headquarters in the Netherlands, but Wedge is owned by Mr Issam M. Fares, the Deputy Prime Minister of Lebanon.

Mr Fares has caused some controversy with his remarks about Middle Eastern affairs, including Hezbollah. As recently as 2003, the Houston Press and Houston Chronicle reported that Mr Fares had criticized “the Zionist lobby in the United States and its agents.

Further, the Houston papers reported that Mr Fares had opposed the U.S. government’s addition of Hezbollah to its list of banned terrorist groups in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The papers quote from a European interview in which Mr Fares remarked: “It is a mistake to make a comparison between the [Al Qaeda] network – which Lebanon has condemned, and Hezbollah, which Lebanon considers a resistance party fighting the Israeli occupation.” Hezbollah is currently an illegal terrorist organization in both Canada and the United States.

The reported remarks of Mr Fares are not those of Ballast Nedam, and Mr Fares’s interest in Ballast Nedam does not necessarily affect the operation of a ski resort in British Columbia. It is the right of the public, however, to know who owns major developments in this province-and, in the case of companies, who owns the owners-and what their views are on matters of public interest.

Although we can learn about the ownership of existing resorts, such as Kicking Horse Mountain, we have no means of doing so when it matters most, i.e. when a controversial project is only a proposal.

So, for the moment, we continue to have little information on who is backing the Jumbo Glacier Resort, and who may back it if the project is approved by the government.

This is no small matter. Given the local controversy the Jumbo proposal has caused and the impact the project would have on communities, the environment, and First Nations, it is critical that the public learn more about the people behind the resort. Indeed, the public should be better informed about who is doing business on public lands throughout BC. As can be seen in the case of the Kicking Horse resort, a little research can reveal information of public interest.

In addition to calling for more transparency in the approvals process, we’ll keep readers of the Dogwood Bulletin informed as we learn more about the Jumbo proposal.

Footnote 1: In naming Ballast Nedam International as its major shareholder, the Kicking Horse website appears to be out of date. According to Ballast Nedam’s 2004 report of the board of management, Ballast Nedam has wound up its International division. Kicking Horse has been transferred to Ballast Nedam Asset Management B.V.

Footnote 2: The stories quoting Mr Fares were about the race for mayor of Houston, in which the leading candidate was the CEO of Mr Fares’s Wedge Group.

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