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Eco-community vs. ski/golf resort: council hears conflicting pitches for former Talisman site

Investment firm wants to restore Talisman to former glory, community group wants to create ecological recreation, business, education on the land
2021_05_16 Talisman Resort Beaver Valley_JG
The Talisman is a 200-acre property that sits in the Beaver Valley in the municipality of Grey Highlands. Contributed photo.

The Municipality of Grey Highlands has received two official deputations in regards to the Talisman property, which is located in the Beaver Valley near the village of Kimberley. 

The Talisman lands are currently owned by both the municipality (two-thirds) and a private number company (one-third). Earlier this year the municipality announced it had entered into a joint venture agreement with the owners of the private number company to pursue the sale and development of the lands. 

The municipality has since received two formal but very opposite presentations on what could be the future of the property - one from Westway Capital, a capital management firm out of the GTA and another from the Talisman Property Action Coalition, a group of local residents and organizations. 

Shortly after the joint venture agreement was announced, the municipality also initiated the Beaver Valley Visioning Sessions, which called on members of the community to express their concerns and visions for the future of the Beaver Valley, where the Talisman lands are located. 

As the Beaver Valley Visioning Sessions were taking place, deputations around the Talisman properties began rolling in. 

The first deputation came from the Talisman Property Action Coalition at a special meeting of council held on May 21. 

The Talisman Property Action Coalition includes participants from a number of community groups including the Friends of the Beaver Valley, the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy, Sustainable Livelihood Canada, Elephant Thoughts and the Kimberley Safety Group. 

“The Beaver Valley lands, once known as the Talisman Mountain Resort, are contiguous with the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and are much-loved, high-profile public assets,” said Dr. Mary Ferguson, Grey Highlands resident, senior partner of EkoNomos and coalition member.

“Our aim is to protect and preserve the ecological integrity, the wildlife corridor, the watershed and the natural landmarks [within the Valley]. We are engaging a coalition of people and organizations in developing a feasible plan for the site,” she continued.

The coalition proposed the concept of bringing together natural conservation, education and service organizations to develop a plan for the properties. 

The group also asked the council to consider a three-month stay on the sale of the property, in order to allow the group time to conduct due diligence on the property and develop a formal strategy. 

Although the group is in the initial stages of developing a plan for the property, they were able to provide a number of examples that they would like to see included in the future Talisman property, which included: Low-impact recreation, such as hiking, snow shoeing, fishing, camping; wildlife corridors; incorporating creative housing options that include affordable ownership and long-term rentals options; Made in Grey Highlands craft, artisan, mini manufacturing space; live/work art studios; community gardens; ecological farmer and pollinator training; satellite campuses for post-secondary and an outdoor education centre.

“We're proposing a sustainable and income-producing development option from a possible economic ecological center, to a community agency supporting environmental education studies as well as eco-friendly business opportunities on the development lands,” said Linda Reader of the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy (EBC) and coalition member. 

In an effort to express the importance of the property to the community, prior to its delegation, the coalition circulated a petition, which garnered 661 signatures as well as 17 private offers to assist with the project. 

“We know that the middle portion of the Talisman lands is prime development property but we'd like to see the development there reflect the values of EBC, the municipality's own strategic plan and the wishes of the people of Grey Highlands,” said Robert Barnett, executive director of the EBC and coalition member. 

“Essentially, there are two possible directions that rest with council. One is basically to manage this public asset and that the entire property is sold to a private enterprise for – as it is stated in the joint venture agreement – a one-time maximum-profit, which, the people we've been working with really do consider this an indication of a lack of vision and leadership by the people we elect to be responsible for our wellness and the management of the assets that we have,” Ferguson said. “Or the municipality supports and works with the coalition to steward the property.”

Following the presentation, council members received the delegation for information. 

Fast forward a week and Grey Highlands councillors were back at the council table with another presentation for the same property on May 28. This time from the Westway Group, a capital investment firm based out of Toronto.    

The Westway Group presented their vision of the Talisman properties to council members, which included the revitalization of the Talisman Resort with the hope of “bringing Talisman back to what it was at one point”. 

“What is our goal here? Well, we believe in the site, we've been to the site, we're very familiar with the site, we understand the natural beauty of the site, we understand the heritage of the site, and we want to do nothing but enhance it and make it better,” said Nick Simone, CEO of the Westway Group. 

Through the presentation, group representatives repeatedly mentioned their intentions to work with and not fight council or community groups through the development of the property, and that the firm’s philosophy is “not to challenge but to work together to reach mutual goals”.

“I really strongly believe that if you engage with the constituents and stakeholders at a very early stage, and bring a collaborative attitude to the table, and listen to what people are looking for and want, you can truly create a win-win for everybody,” said Paul Mondell, senior planning consultant for the Westway Group. 

The presentation included high-level plans to redevelop the resort, golf course and spa areas of the property in order to capitalize on the changing landscape of local tourism. 

“The pandemic has really changed people's perceptions. And I think we have a tremendous opportunity to re-establish tourism and promote local tourism to people that are within an easy drive of this area that are prepared to spend their hard-earned tourism dollars and leave them in Canada and support the local economy. I think it's really important that the Talisman can play a role in that revitalization,” Mondell said. 

Westway representatives also noted their intentions to keep the resort development compact as only 20 per cent of the Talisman property is fit for development. The remaining 80 per cent would be left in its natural state with low-impact recreational uses. 

Following the firm’s presentation, Grey Highlands council members asked a number of questions, including asking for examples of similar properties or developments that they have been involved with that were the similar size and rural-location to that of the Talisman. 

The Westway Group provided a number of generalizations, but could not provide a specific example of a similar project.  

Mondell stated that he has been involved in development projects throughout Ontario and across North America for the past 40 years, and while he did not have any specific examples, he reassured council members that the firm holds an abundance of expertise in a wide range of developments.

However, according to Mondell’s online footprint, or more specifically his Linkedin profile, Mondell is highly involved in numerous resorts throughout Ontario including the Blue Mountain Resort and Village, Deerhurst, and Horseshoe Resort and Village.

Mondell’s profile states that he is presently employed at Skyline Investments as a Senior Vice President leading the Skyline Communities Development Team.

Skyline Investments is a Toronto-based investment company that incorporated in 1998. Currently, Skyline’s assets total approximately $700M including significant cash-flow hotel and resort land properties.

According to its website, Skyline owns 50 per cent and manages 100 per cent of all the retail properties in the Blue Mountain Village. 

In addition, Skyline owns the last three development sites within the village centre and plans are in place to significantly increase the residential footprint of Blue Mountain along with expanding the Village centre retail.

But this connection was not mentioned during the group’s presentation to Grey Highlands council. Instead, Mondell listed his title as senior planning consultant with the Westway Group. 

In a follow-up interview, Grey Highlands Mayor, Paul McQueen said he is aware that members of the Westway group were involved in the development of the Blue Mountain Resort but was unaware to what extent.  

Following the presentation, council members received the delegation for information. 

“It will be up to council to determine how they would like to proceed following the delegations that took place last week and this week,” said McQueen. 

“We are delighted that there is so much interest in the Beaver Valley, and the Talisman properties specifically. We know that carefully planned community development through public engagement provides direct benefit to all. What we’ve seen over the past few months, especially through the Beaver Valley Visioning sessions, tells us how much not only our residents, but people from far and wide, value the importance of the Beaver Valley,” McQueen continued. 

He added that maximizing profits will not be what defines any decision made by council. 

“Council will be looking to ensure that any future activities or undertakings respect the Valley’s ecological integrity and support the needs of the community for generations. As we have identified in our strategic plan, the municipality values its shared responsibility to leave a legacy of a clean and nourishing natural environment while respecting the community’s heritage,” he said. 

“We also recognize that there is an opportunity to attract responsible and sustainable investment that will provide a long term economic stimulus to Grey Highlands and encourage the addition of new local amenities to support community needs. I think these considerations echo much of what we’ve been hearing from the community over the past months."

McQueen said council received the delegations but there are currently no plans to discuss the presentations during a council meeting, unless a member of council were to bring forward a related notice of motion. 

He added that council plans to take its time with any decision regarding the Talisman lands and that securing a plan for the future of the site will likely be a lengthy process with numerous opportunities for public consultation. 

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Jennifer Golletz

About the Author: Jennifer Golletz

Jennifer Golletz covers civic matters under the Local Journalism Initative, which is funded by the Government of Canada
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