Lululemon founder’s family chips in $8.4 million for marine research centre

A revised design of the Pender Ocean Discovery Station without an auditorium | Image via PODS

Chip Wilson is pledging $8 million to the Pender Ocean Discovery Station (PODS), a marine research centre on the Sunshine Coast,  through his family’s philanthropic foundation.

“We are excited to have PODS be an integral part of Pender Harbour,” said Wilson in a release announcing the contribution.

The funding is contingent on the Ruby Lake Lagoon Society’s ability to secure the remaining money needed to move ahead with the project – about $17 million – which it expects to do with a combination of government grants and private donations. An additional $400,000 has been donated outright.

“We are still actively fundraising for additional capital as well as educational program and operational costs and we hope that this new impetus will encourage more people to get on board with PODS,” said PODS executive director Michael Jackson.

Wilson, the founder of athletic apparel company Lululemon and listed as Canada’s ninth richest person, is pledging the funding through his family’s Wilson 5 Foundation. Wilson owns property on the Sunshine Coast.

“The Sunshine Coast and the community have been so generous to our family and as a family, we have been looking for a project that would be fun for the community and would preserve the beauty of our waters,” Wilson said.

Of the $8.4 million, $7 million will be used to support the PODS research facility, $1 million will cover operating expenses and the $400,000 will fund the project’s start-up costs.

The contribution is the largest the organization has received “by some margin,” Jackson said, and makes it eligible for government grants that require matching funding. Jackson intends to apply for funding through the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program, to cover construction costs.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, the intention is to break ground at the Irvines Landing property in late 2020 or early next year. “As soon as we get our building permits, we’re ready to run with it,” Jackson said.

“It’s potentially going to stimulate the local economy here considerably because this is a big project and we’ll be employing a lot of people.”

Since receiving bylaw approvals last summer to move ahead with the research, tourism and arts facility, Jackson said a number of changes have been made to the design – including a decision to remove a large auditorium from the site plans. 

“The auditorium is no longer a part of Irvines Landing,” he said.

Instead, the search is on for a more accessible location in Pender Harbour for the 200-capacity structure that is intended to accommodate large conferences and other events.

Jackson cited cost and neighbouring residents’ concerns over how parking and traffic could disrupt the relatively remote area as primary drivers for the change.

The new auditorium site should be closer to businesses and resorts to make it more accessible, he said. That project isn’t expected to get underway for another couple of years. He also expects the pandemic will stall large-scale events, which could affect their plans. Revenue generated through conference events plays an important role in PODS’ business model. 

In the meantime, small conferences with approximately 70 people could be held at the Irvines Landing site, Jackson said.

The new design reconfigures the three “pods” so that they will all be attached, increases lab space, and modifies the space for art exhibits.

The project is expected to cost between $20 and $25 million, minus the additional cost of the auditorium, said Jackson, though estimates still have to be finalized.

PODS’ work has continued as usual through the pandemic, since the team mainly relies on consultants, but Ruby Lake Lagoon Society’s bricks and mortar establishments EarthFair Store and Iris Griffith Centre have closed, and some programing has been cancelled.

After stepping down from Lululemon’s board of directors in 2015, Chip Wilson, known as the architect of the “athleisure” clothing trend, is now partial owner of Amer, a sports clothing conglomerate. He also owns a real estate company, Low Tide Properties, which has invested in more than two-dozen locations in Vancouver.

– With files from Hayley Woodin

Coast Reporter