Lukas Armstrong is not, by his own admission, a mountain man.
Armstrong moved to Nelson four years ago and lives in a multi-generational house that includes his three-year-old son and his 75-year-old mother. He’d like to see the city from a peak with his family, and he thinks a gondola is the way to do it.
Yes, a gondola.
“The idea that all of us could go as a family up to the top of this thing and be in the mountains, be in the alpine, look at the flowers, look across the lake and all go for a walk, everybody can be comfortable, hang out on the deck, have a little meal. I mean, it’s just fantastic,” said Armstrong. “It’s the part of Nelson we’ve yet to experience, and this makes it accessible for all of us.”
Armstrong is one of six people working on a bold, although not unprecedented, plan to build a gondola called the Silver King Skyride from a base in or near Nelson to a site between the city and Morning Mountain.
The non-profit organization called Silver King Skyride Development Association, which pictured to the left includes (L-R) Graeme Leadbeater, Phil Scott, Armstrong, Mitchell Scott and not pictured Jay McKimm and Tom Abraham, has been working on the idea since January 2014.
Although they have spoken in private with community members, their presentation to the Nelson recreation commission last month was the first time they’ve gone public with their plan.
“We think it’s doable, it’s achievable, it’s been done in BC before in some fashion with the Sea to Sky Gondola [in Squamish],” said Armstrong. “So yeah, it’s huge, but at the same time it’s doable.”
The plan is still years and many hurdles away from becoming reality. But it exists, in part because they aren’t the first to try.
In 2003, a group of Nelson developers and investors unveiled plans for the Silver Basin Resort. The site would have covered 7,000 acres including a ski village, eight lifts and a gondola that would ferry visitors from Railtown.
That project died a couple of years later, but the idea stuck with McKimm. A member of Nelson Nordic Ski Club, McKimm suggested to Leadbeater a plan that ditched the resort and kept the gondola as a way of prolonging the cross-country season at a higher altitude than the club’s current location off Highway 6.
Leadbeater, who works with Armstrong at Cover Architecture, and McKimm gradually included others in the plan. Reception, Leadbeater said, has been good so far.
“Nelson’s a very special place. A lot of community buy-in, a lot of community ownership for things. So we felt this needed to be really driven as an issue arising out of the community with broad support from skiers, bikers, hikers, environmentalists, that there shouldn’t be any kind of real estate development play and a few other things that [would] be really off-putting.”
The group envisions a site similar to what exists in Squamish, although on a smaller scale. They would keep the site free of real estate, opting instead for a lodge with a restaurant and viewing deck. Other amenities would include hiking, bike trails and nordic skiing over the rolling landscape that has in the past mostly been used for logging.
“It’s got a real functional aspect to it [as opposed to Sea to Sky], which can take you up to this beautiful spot where you can look, you can walk around, then you go back down,” said Mitchell Scott. “This is much more engaged to get out into the surrounding terrain quite easily without being dangerous and scary. It’s pretty cool that way.”
The plan presented to the rec commission showed several possible gondola routes and extensions, but the group says it’s more likely just one route would be built. Despite its namesake, they think building a gondola all the way to the old Silver King mine would be too costly. (Coincidentally, the Silver King used an aerial tramway to transport ore to the Hall Mines smelter in Rosemont.) Although they like the idea of placing the base station at the end of Baker St. in Railtown to help spur the area’s development, they are also open to other areas on the outskirts of the city.
The group has found support from a pair of people who know all about gondolas. David Greenfield and Trevor Dunn of GroundEffects Development Inc., two of the three main partners who built the Squamish gondola, visited Nelson in April to consult with the group, meet with community members and assess the site. A gondola, the pair concluded, was a viable idea for Nelson.
What the association needs first is a feasibility study, which they believe will cost around $100,000. That money, they hope, will come in part from the city, the regional district and Columbia Basin Trust, although formal discussions have not yet happened.
After that comes a business plan, which Phil Scott said could cost up to $400,000, before construction begins. For comparison, the Sea to Sky Gondola site cost $22 million and took five years from concept to completion.
Some in the group suggested a Nelson gondola could still be up to seven years away. Armstrong, for his part, is optimistic it could happen in five.
“That is being bullish, but why not? It’s a big dream anyway, so dream big.”
Selling the idea on the community may end up being the group’s biggest obstacle, but they aren’t worried. From their perspective, the economic impact of the gondola would provide a longterm, sustainable tourism destination that the entire region would benefit from.
“This is an opportunity I think to revitalize the place where I was born and keep it differentiated,” said Phil Scott. “Everything we do in our lives, we need to reinvent ourselves, and I think this is an opportunity for reinvention that will take Nelson into the next 50 or 100 years.”