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December 08, 2021

Grey Highlands owns a property it doesn’t want

Women arguing over Beaver Valley backdrop

In this 5-part analysis of the Talisman properties controversy, John Butler explores the history of the lauded Beaver Valley resort and the many visions for its next chapter. His story documents the sordid details that have led to the situation currently facing the Municipality of Grey Highlands Council and the concerned community it represents.

BY JOHN BUTLER FOR SOUTHGREY.CA — A second attempt by the municipality to sell the main Talisman lands in August 2013, again failed to attract any bids. The municipality, faced with the possibility of continued ownership and ensuing liability for the vandalized and deteriorating property, instructed its CAO to prepare an options report that was made public. As a result of that report, the municipality established a Talisman Task Force in late 2013 to make recommendations on the future of the property. After 13 Task Force meetings, technical assistance from the University of Guelph’s Rural Planning and Development Program, consultation with the Niagara Escarpment Conservation Authority, the Grey Sauble Conservation Authority and Grey Bruce Tourism, an online community survey and two community meetings, the Task Force made its report to the municipality in April, 2014.

The Task Force report proposed to broaden the pool of stakeholders involved in deciding the fate of the Talisman property, beyond municipal government and the private sector. The report proposed the creation of a Development Board to supervise the development of the Talisman Property as a “multi-use four-season public family activity centre that offers recreational activities, accommodations and restaurants that works with Kimberley Village and surrounding communities and is the destination and focal point for the Beaver Valley — a Green Development — consistent with the Biosphere Reserve designation and natural beauty of the Beaver Valley, and Grey Highlands Strategic Plan priority of sustainable and principled growth.”

The Task Force foresaw a range of possible ownership structures for redevelopment of the property, including sale to a third party, lease of the property, public/private partnership, and cooperative or not-for-profit ownership.

While the Task Force was doing its work, the Mayor and CAO were meeting with potential buyers. The Task Force report was received by the Council on a Friday and at a hastily called meeting on the Monday, Council was presented with an offer to buy the property and given 24 hours in which to decide whether to accept the offer, which entailed purchase, by the same buyer, of the part of property on which most of the buildings were located (the sale price was $1.2 million) and the golf course property, also known as the Lower Talisman property (sold for $600,000). The deal was a straight real estate sale, with no development restrictions. Council accepted the offer, but two councillors voted against the sale — Paul McQueen (then Deputy Mayor) and Councillor Stewart Halliday.

This sale rendered the Task Force report irrelevant and the strategic opportunity to create a Development Board to explore ownership options went to the scrap heap.

Despite the investment of up to $10 million by the new owner in trying to create a hotel, restaurant, golf course and spa (but no ski hill), the cost of turning this dream into reality failed as projected costs to rehabilitate the site and its deteriorating buildings mushroomed. The municipality held mortgages on both properties it had sold. The new owners paid off a $200,000 interest-free mortgage on the main property, but no payments were ever made on the $600,000 mortgage on the golf course property, so the municipality reclaimed this land.

In 2017, Grey County hired thinkCOMPASS, an investment attraction consulting firm, to market Talisman as well as Wiarton International Airport, since it considered both properties important to the economic development of the County. Unsuccessful attempts were made to market these properties in 2018 to foreign investment groups.

By 2020, after nearly a decade of failed attempts to establish stable ownership of the properties, the municipality possessed former Talisman lands that it had no plans to use or to preserve, and the owner of adjacent former Talisman lands, sandwiched between municipal lands to the east and west, had failed to develop a major resort on the property and owed considerable back taxes on it, as well.

So the two parties made a deal. On October 14, 2020, Grey Highlands Mayor Paul McQueen announced the municipality was partnering with the owners of the former Talisman Resort property to work toward potential development and investment in the Beaver Valley. The media release spoke of exploring “opportunities to maximize the development potential” of both sets of property. In the release, Grey Highlands CAO, Karen Govan, spoke of the value of strategically targeting “growth and development in partnership with the private sector”, and Mayor McQueen spoke of “forging a culture of partnership with the private sector that is essential to achieving sustainable economic growth, investment and jobs.”

Although the media release referred to “the importance of the Beaver Valley as one of Ontario’s iconic natural splendours, cut into the Niagara Escarpment”, no mention was made of the desirability of partnering with any civic or environmental organizations that had a stake in the Beaver Valley. Such groups existed — the Niagara Escarpment Commission, the Niagara Escarpment Foundation, the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy, and the Bruce Trail Association, among others. Mayor McQueen spoke of “engaging our community as we build out the future vision for Grey Highlands”, but made no mention of any community engagement that had taken place prior to the decision to sell the lands, nor any mention of the 2014 Talisman Task Force’s suggestion that consideration of the future of these lands ought to consider a range of options, including sale to a third party, lease of the property, public/private partnership, and cooperative or not-for-profit ownership. The media release focused almost exclusively on the municipality and the private sector.

The release said the strategic development opportunities associated with the project were supported by Grey County’s economic development team, and their investment attraction consultants, thinkCOMPASS.

Read the next instalment in this series:
The community raises its voice a little louder

Read the previous instalments in this series:
Talisman property 101: How did we get here?


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