A company with ties to a state-created Chinese investment firm has been announced as the buyer of one of the region's highest-profile properties – the Grouse Mountain ski resort and entertainment complex.
Although the sale price had been rumoured to be $200-million, a news release issued on Tuesday did not provide numbers. The deal is between Grouse Mountain Resorts, a company owned by the McLaughlin family since 1989, and GM Resorts, a new firm created this year.
The new owners promised no changes to staff, management or operations.
"Grouse Mountain Resort is an important Vancouver landmark that is also a highly successful business," a director of the new company, Kenny Zou, said in a statement. "The opportunity to make this purchase is not something we take lightly."
"We understand that Grouse Mountain is treasured by locals and visitors alike. We look forward to working closely with the existing staff, management team and the community to ensure we maintain the Grouse Mountain experience for all of our visitors."
But many are wondering about the ultimate intentions of the company and its Chinese affiliate.
The news of the impending sale provoked some negative public comments last week after it was first reported by The Globe and Mail. Federal political parties stayed away from the topic, except for the NDP.
"The NDP has for years called to reduce the threshold for foreign takeovers, so we can better protect Canadian jobs and ensure these deals are of benefit to Canadians," said Brian Masse, the NDP's industry critic.
"Instead, the Liberals actually raised the threshold to $1-billion, which means a lot more takeovers will occur without any review at all."
The property – originally invested in by Bruce McLaughlin and then taken from public to private in 1989, and owned now by his children Stuart, Julie and Joanne through an Ontario-based company – is almost 500 hectares, much more land than is occupied by the current ski resort, zip lines, bear-watching, a wind turbine and other attractions.
However, North Vancouver municipal officials insist that none of the property the GM Resorts is buying is anywhere inside the district's designated area for residential development, and all of it is zoned for parks and recreation.
GM Resorts was incorporated in March of this year and has two directors, Feng Liao and Kang Zou. According to the release, CM (Canada) Asset Management Co. Ltd., a Canadian investment and asset-management company with more than 60 per cent Canadian investors, established GM.
It says that CMIG, China Minsheng Investment Group, is the international investor. Mr. Liao is listed in a Bloomberg profile as the president of CMIG.
Many tourism experts and brokers say interest in B.C. resorts has spiked in the past two to three years.
"Chinese investors have purchased other places around the province from restaurants to pubs to resorts," said Walt Judas, the CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C. One recent purchase is the Hills Guest Ranch at 108 Mile Ranch in the province's Interior.
He said the new owners of Grouse Mountain may consider putting in a hotel, but it would be difficult, since the only transportation in is a gondola that does not operate after 10 p.m.
As well, he said, the new owners do not really need to do that if all they want is cash flow. Mr. Judas said improvements to Grouse Mountain have turned it into a year-round attraction.
Mr. Judas saw the sale as a positive, not just for Grouse, but for operators of tourism ventures in the province, many of whom are approaching or past retirement age and need someone to take over their business.
"They are looking to transition, but they don't want someone just interested in real estate speculation," he said.
A consultant who has worked with several prospective Chinese buyers said they are diversifying.
"Predominantly, they were interested in Lower Mainland properties at first. But now we're seeing interest on the west coast of Vancouver Island and the Okanagan," said Mike Duggan, a consultant who is a former chair of Tourism BC, and a former hotel manger or resort director at Whistler, Sun Peaks and Silver Star. "It's great. It shows the strength of the industry."
Mr. Duggan said Sandpiper Golf Course near Harrison Hot Springs and Mount Baldy in Oliver are two examples of recent purchases by Chinese investors.
Stuart McLaughlin became a prominent business star in B.C. as a result of his ownership of the Grouse Mountain resort and other ventures.
Mr. McLaughlin has been the chair of the Crown corporation Pavco for the past three years. The McLaughlin family purchased Whistler Water, which markets bottled water products under the Whistler Water Inc. and Polaris Water brands, in 2005.
With a report from Stephanie Chambers