In many ways 2013 was one for the record books. Whistler's planning went into high gear with information coming out of RMOW staff reports, such as the Economic Partnership Initiative report, which will lay the groundwork for growth and development for years to come. We also saw record-breaking visitor numbers, with the summer of 2013 smashing all the previous numbers recorded. As the resort headed toward winter the story on everyone's lips was the $18 million upgrades to the Harmony and Crystal regions of Whistler Blackcomb.
The resort also faced challenges too — and as we head into 2014 the weather might just be one of them.
As Pique looks back at some of the issues, people and events of 2013, it is also a time to remember those we lost in the last twelve months.
Happy New Year from everyone at Pique.
RMOW and its PartnersBy Alison Taylor
Whistler council knows how to cap off a year in style.
Twelve months ago, in the last meeting of 2012, Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden and Vancouver developer/philanthropist Michael Audain signed a historic Memorandum of Understanding, paving the way for his multi-million dollar art museum.
It was the cherry of the top of a jam-packed first year in office defined by action.
Council was set to deliver its last meeting of 2013 with similar panache to underscore the work accomplished this past year, their second of a three-year term: Another official signing; Another document weighted with potential portent; Another feather in its cap.
This time it was a letter of understanding with Emily Carr University of Art + Design for a summer satellite program on Alta Lake.
And while it didn't pan out as planned with an official signing — Emily Carr's dean of continuing studies was forced off the highway with car troubles on her way to Whistler — the intent and the significance of the agreement did not go unnoticed.
Though admittedly it's just a two-week summer program, council is laying the groundwork for the future.
It was the cherry on the top of jam-packed second year defined most significantly by planning.
Planning — The Reports
Four weighty reports landed on the council table this year providing a blueprint for future decisions. Case in point — the Emily Carr University partnership. The Learning and Education Task Force report recommended Whistler pursue small education opportunities with proven schools.
To show these reports and their recommendations won't just gather dust on the shelves, Whistler has been actively pursing opportunities like Emily Carr.
The names of these reports are worth repeating; if all goes as planned, council will be referring to them often in the year to come. They are:
- the Economic Partnership Initiative (EPI) report
- the Learning and Education Task Force report
- the Community Cultural Plan report
- the Recreation and Leisure Master Plan report
As she reviewed council's accomplishments from her mayor's chair in the last meeting of the year, Wilhelm-Morden talked about the significance of some of the observations in those reports.
The EPI report included research showing Whistler has an annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $1.3 billion, generating $1.1 million per day in taxes. Whistler is responsible for 22.5 per cent of tourism export revenues in the province. "Those are new monies into the province generated by tourists coming to visit Whistler on an annual basis," says the mayor.
Or to put it another way — the GDP in Whistler is actually equivalent to the combined agriculture and fisheries sectors in this province.
"That's all new information that came out of the EPI report," says the mayor.
Information Whistler always suspected but now it can arm itself in making future decisions with the most impact to the resort's economic engine, in lobbying the provincial government, in understanding its power beyond its borders.
While the EPI had concrete recommendations too, it's the power of the information about what makes Whistler tick that's its real strength going forward.
Whistler International Campus
Information and recommendations from the Learning and Education Task Force report also helped form the basis of council's decision to turn down a rezoning application that would have paved the way for the Whistler International Campus.
Even without that report, however, council likely would have rejected the rezoning.
In a December council meeting, the mayor said: "This is not a proposal to build a university. This is a proposal to build a large commercial development."
Whether in support, or critical, of council's decision the point remains that it finally made the decision — one of the most important of its term, one that put an end to the endless speculation of a standalone university and the future of the Zen Lands.
It could have been contentious, fractious, and divisive.
Instead, true to course, council's decision was straightforward, and unanimous. Arguments were set out and delivered by each member of council.
Perhaps, even more interestingly than the decision itself is the fact that there has been relatively little backlash, at least in the public realm.
The Official Community Plan - OCP
As four fresh plans landed on council's desk, another plan was whisked right off it, and right into the Supreme Court of British Columbia.
Council passed the OCP bylaws in early May, after getting provincial approval of the plan.
It was the culmination of two years work and extensive community consultation. It was a significant accomplishment to adopt the bylaws. But even as it gave its approval council knew Squamish and Lil'wat First Nations weren't happy with the document, their concerns specifically focused around the language in the OCP reinforcing Whistler's cap on the development.
At the time Chief Lucinda Phillips of the Lil'wat Nation said: "The OCP does not provide Lil'wat with any opportunity to participate in the future economic growth of the resort.
"We have been blocked out of Whistler's development for the past 40 years, our capacity and the legal landscape have evolved, but the RMOW, with the province's blessing is essentially saying we are too late to participate."
As soon as the bylaws were passed, the Nations filed a petition in court against Whistler and the province.
The first hearings went before a judge in November; three more days are scheduled in court in January.
"An obvious goal in 2014 will be to conclude that litigation," says the mayor.
Excalibur Gondola case in court
As lawyers continue to argue Whistler's case in court for the OCP, Wihelm-Morden was in court in 2013, arguing on behalf of her clients involved in Whistler Blackcomb's 2008 Excalibur Gondola collapse.
The mayor took on the cases, and one the municipality's key partners, before winning the Nov. 2011 election.
The trial for one of the 11 people Wilhelm-Morden was representing went before Justice Allen Betton in April. The case was against Doppelmayr CTEC Ltd., Intrawest ULC, Intrawest Mountain Resorts Ltd., Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises Limited Partnership and Whistler Mountain Resort Limited Partnership.
It focused on a Dec. 16, 2008 event on Blackcomb Mountain when Tower 4 snapped due to ice build-up. No cabins came off the gondola line, but several people were injured when the cabins lurched toward the ground.
In the end, Justine Betton awarded British snowboarder Amy Sefton $38,100.
Wilhelm-Morden represented 11 people. Several have settled out of court. Those details are confidential.
The municipality also sewed up wage negotiations with its unionized and non-unionized staff, in 2013.
Non-unionized workers, which make up the vast majority of the hall staff, got a 6.75 per cent raise over four years, based on patterns from the Lower Mainland. The agreement addressed the 2012-2015 time periods.The deal was announced in August. Municipal CAO Mike Furey said at the time: "Our discussions with staff have also resulted in some trade-offs, for example we have eliminated the payout of any banked sick leave for employees leaving the organization, something that will result in future savings for the organization."
A few months later the mayor announced a deal with CUPE 2010 – the local Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents 27 wastewater and utility workers at the hall.
The agreement see a similar 6.75 per cent wage increase over four years.
Negotiations are ongoing with the unionized firefighters, whose agreement expired in Dec. 2011.
"Another obvious goal for 2014," says Wilhelm-Morden of the firefighters' negotiation.
Financial health at RMOW
It happened so long ago that it's has become almost a footnote in the list of council achievements but don't underestimate the work and commitment it took to deliver another year of no tax increases to local taxpayers in 2013.
It's the second year in a row where council has held the line on taxes.
And that wasn't all this year.
There was a surplus too.
That means service levels were ramped up, including the library being open once again on Sunday's with an extra $60,000.
Transit hours were also ramped up later in the year with 2,000 new service hours added to the winter service.
But there have been added costs elsewhere. Program fees for non-residents were upped in August for things like swimming lessons, and skating and fitness programs at Meadow Park.
"It was not an easy decision to make, but the fact of the matter is that municipal taxpayers pay more than 50 per cent of the costs of Meadow Park Sports Centre, and it's a lot of money — $2.1 million subsidized by taxpayers every year. And we know that 10 per cent of users are from surrounding communities."
The municipality has also continued to release quarterly financial reports providing snapshots of the financial health of the hall.
The $3-million municipal Festivals, Events and Animation FE&A program is playing an increasingly important role in positioning Whistler as the place where something is always happening.
Money was poured into original programming, and animation and there was a $922,000 budget to "augment" existing third-party events such as Tough Mudder, Ironman and Cornucopia this year. Third-party proposals amounted to almost $1.8 million in requests for augmentation funding — a sign of just how much interest there is in putting on events and festivals in Whistler.
The money flows to the municipality from the province in the form of Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) funds — about $7 million in total in 2013 — with a goal to growing tourism in B.C. The FE&A strategy is based partly on research "used to inform strategic decisions that will position the resort for strong economic growth in the future."
Part of that research includes Economic Impact Assessments, which measure the impacts of events in Whistler and beyond.
The RMOW paid for eight Economic Impact Assessments in 2013.
Three have been released to date — WinterPRIDE, Tough Mudder and Ironman. Five have yet to be completed.
It needs no preamble. Last year at Whistler Blackcomb was all about the $18 million Crystal/Harmony upgrades and expansion.
The Crystal Ridge Express, a new chairlift in the Crystal zone, opens up that terrain. The Harmony 6 Express chairlift on Whistler takes more people into the alpine faster than ever.
The investment also included $3 million in new snowmaking equipment.
"I think this investment is going to exceed people's expectations for many years to come," said WB president and COO Dave Brownlie on the Crystal's opening day.
In December, WB also announced its fourth quarter financials and posted a four per cent increase in revenue compared to the same three-month period in 2012, ending Sept. 30. The increase was attributed to a rise in visitation numbers and average spend per visit over the summer months — a perfect segue to a nod to Whistler's best summer on record.
Tourism Whistler's room-night numbers for the summer of 2013 broke summer records, making this the busiest summer on record.
June saw a 15 per cent increase, July a seven per cent increase, August was up three per cent.
The busiest weekend was the first weekend in August — the B.C. Day long weekend, the Wanderlust yoga festival, and unbelievable weather. Whistler was at 97 per cent occupancy.
The second busiest weekend was the second weekend of Crankworx in August at 96 per cent. The third biggest weekend was Labour Day, at 95 per cent.
In early September, Tourism Whistler's president and CEO Barrett Fisher said: "Increased travel demand, recovering group business and increased marketing efforts to encourage early summer bookings have resulted in strong results for the resort.
"A robust calendar of festivals and events throughout the summer — including the addition of Ironman Canada — coupled with strong weather also had a positive impact on our results."
Whistler 2010 Sport Legacies (WSL)
In October, Whistler 2010 Sport Legacies Society released its latest financial report, ending March 31, 2013 and the news was better than in past years.
The last financial year shows the organization running at almost $6.8 million in costs.
The three Olympic venues — Whistler Olympic Park, Whistler Sliding Centre and the Whistler Athletes' Centre — brought in roughly $3.15 million.
That leaves a funding gap of $3.6 million.
The Games Operating Trust brings in roughly $2.7 million annually. The shortfall to date has been coming from the province in what's called a "transition grant."
Roughly $9 million has been received from the province; most recently $2.7 million was guaranteed over three years until March 2015.
"Ideally we're love to get to a point where we're self-sufficient," said president and CEO Roger Soane, upon the release of the financial statements. "Capital replacement is always going to be a challenge for the organization. As our infrastructure ages we will be challenged."
And so, 2013 sees the end of another busy year, not just for the Resort Municipality of Whistler, but for its partners too.
There have been numerous resort accolades for Whistler: Google Canada's eTown award for communities that harness the power of the Internet to attract new customers and the usual string of top rankings from industry insiders putting Whistler Blackcomb No. 1. And the Resort Municipality of Whistler too had the dubious distinction of being recognized with the Code of Silence award by the Canadian Association of Journalists.
Last year was the first of the permanent ice rink, which saw 16,000 skaters gliding for free outdoors in the heart of the village. There was the first hugely successful Ironman, the first annual event in a five-year deal, generating $8.4 million in local economic activity, $17.3 million in B.C.
The Audain Art Museum zoning approvals were fast-tracked through the red tape of the hall and construction has begun on that $30-million-plus facility.
In all, the stage has been set for a busy year to come to cap off council's term.
How will it end its last meeting of 2014?
We can't wait to find out.