False claims, misleading images promote 'eco resort' crowdfunding campaign that's raised over $60K
Azhen Eco Resort says it's aiming for winter opening, but barely anything has been built, permits not sought
An eco-resort that claims to be on the brink of opening, and whose owners have raised over $60,000 on that promise, consists of little more than a raw piece of land in the B.C. Interior and a converted bus parked in a backyard in Langley.
Jaymie Friesen, 23, has launched a crowdfunding campaign in support of his proposed Azhen Eco Resort, located on 65 hectares of rugged wilderness near Rock Creek, southeast of Kelowna, B.C.
The stated purpose for the online fundraising campaign, which had raised $68,725 as of Tuesday morning, is to pay for the resort's finishing touches, such as wood-fired hot tubs and a hydrotherapy spa.
In exchange for contributions, Friesen promised people "perks" in the form of discounted stays at the resort, starting as soon as January.
But the online depiction of the resort is based on stock internet photos, non-existent business partnerships, and false claims. In addition, Friesen, who has previously tried and failed to launch a product through crowdfunding, has not applied for any operating permits for the resort.
Website changed after CBC inquiries
In an interview with CBC, Friesen, who lives in Langley, admitted that photographs of yurts, tipis, and geodomes that he claimed on the fundraising site were "completed" and "ready for stays" are, in fact, stock images of locations in California, Colorado and Australia.
Friesen also admitted that the resort's pre-fabricated "tiny homes," which the website claimed were also completed and ready for guests, have not yet been purchased.
A number of building partners listed on the crowdfunding website denied being involved in the project, and some were entirely unaware of its existence.
Sunshine Tiny Homes of Gibsons, B.C., is listed as a "building partner" on the Azhen crowdfunding site. But in a telephone interview, owner Pam Robertson said she "does not have an established business relationship" with the resort, and only had a "quick conversation" with Friesen.
After CBC inquiries, Friesen indicated they had re-established contact with Sunshine Tiny Homes and were hoping to collaborate further.
Meanwhile, the supposed supplier of the treetop spheres, round sleeping pods meant to be suspended in the forest, which the resort said would open in the spring, says it's unaware of the project.
"I've never heard of them," said Tom Chudleigh, owner of Free Spirit Spheres in Qualicum Beach, B.C, which is also listed by the resort as a building partner.
Another supposed building partner, Nelson Treehouses, based in Redmond, Wash., told CBC by email that "we have no idea who these people are and we are in no way affiliated with them."
After CBC's inquiries, the resort removed Nelson Treehouses as a partner on the website, deleted references to accommodations being "completed," and extended the timelines for the project's second phase.
'We do have a renovated bus'
Friesen admitted that aside from a few tent platforms, none of the accommodations at the resort have actually been built.
"It's not up and ready," he said. "We do have a renovated bus. It's sitting in our yard down here."
Nonetheless, he insisted the resort will open as planned this winter. After the interview, references to a confirmed January opening were removed from the crowdfunding site.
The temporary structures like tents and yurts are being constructed in an indoor facility on the Lower Mainland, Friesen said, and will be moved to the site prior to opening.
"We can put them together in two or three days," he said.
Even if the resort is constructed, it's unclear how it will open safely in the middle of winter, and during a pandemic.
Winters in the Rock Creek area can be unforgiving, with deep snow and overnight temperatures dipping well below -10 C.
There is no electricity, water, sewage, or garbage service in the area, according to local real estate agent Johni de Groot, who has worked in the region for 19 years and is familiar with other properties in the immediate vicinity.
In addition, Friesen admitted he has not applied for any permits to operate a resort.
Vicki Gee, the area director with the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary, said although the property does not require rezoning, it would require building permits, approvals from Interior Health, and possibly riparian permits from the provincial government.
Friesen said in an email that they've only had "preliminary conversations" about what might be allowed on the property, but that "everything will be done by the book."
Jen Gargul of Grand Forks, B.C., contributed $255 to the campaign, assuming it was going toward the hot tubs. "When looking at the photos on the campaign, and then again on their website .... I was under the impression that it was partially completed," she said.
She demanded, and received, a refund after hearing an interview with Friesen on CBC's Daybreak South.
"After hearing the story, I felt like I had been totally duped by Jaymie Friesen and company," she said.
- To hear Chris Walker speak further about the investigation into the Azhen Eco Resort fundraising campaign on CBC's Daybreak South, tap here.
Complaints about previous campaign
The Azhen Eco Resort is not the first project launched by Friesen using crowdfunding to raise money.
In 2019, his cosmetics company NaturalVeganClub.com successfully raised $36,005 on Kickstarter to develop a biodegradable bottle that would "end plastic pollution."
In exchange for their contributions, donors were promised prototypes of the bottle and a variety of cosmetic products. While some people said they did receive cosmetics, the bottles never materialized.
"I still never received my bottle, or anything from my pledge. I had high hopes but I am pretty disappointed," wrote backer Emily Green in the crowdfunding site's comments section, which is rife with similar complaints.
Friesen admitted that although he pocketed the money from the campaign, he never delivered any bottles.
"We were not allowed to send that out because we were waiting on a patent," he said. He sold the cosmetics business in April this year.
No refunds guaranteed after Dec. 3
On a Facebook advertisement for the resort, Friesen promised that people who have contributed to the crowdfunding campaign for the Azhen Eco Resort can "get refunded any time, even after the campaign is over."
In fact, the refund policy at Indiegogo, the platform hosting the crowdfunding campaign, says refunds are available until Dec. 3. After that, refunds are Friesen's responsibility, and he admitted there's no guarantee.
"We'll do our best depending on the cash flow and investment money that we have," he told CBC.
Indiegogo did not respond to a request for comment.
Consumer Protection B.C., a regulatory arm of the provincial government, said in an email that crowdfunding falls outside of its jurisdiction.
"Donations and crowdfunding do not fit within the definition of a consumer transaction, as there is no good or service being supplied back to the consumer," a spokesperson said.