Opinion » Alta States

Alta States

Celebrating the human factor



By Michel Beaudry

When it comes to resident housing, some people at Whistler have it backwards. At least, that’s what former council member Caroline Lamont thinks. “The asset to protect isn’t the housing,” she says, “it’s the people who live and work and make the resort community run! After all, that’s what resident housing is supposed to be all about. But you’d never know that from the way things have been going lately. People are being told that they’re greedy. That they’re just thinking about themselves. Sadly — that’s not the case at all. For those of us who didn’t get into the housing market early enough to be sitting on million-dollar equities, it’s really tough. We’re just trying to survive — trying to figure out how to make it work at Whistler…”

The irony in all this, she adds, is that the community desperately needs her Gen X cohorts (the group between 30 and 45) to stick around for the long-term. And yet they’re the ones facing the biggest financial hurdles right now.   “What’s going to happen after 2010 when all the Baby Boomers running Whistler cash in their chips and move to warmer climes?” she asks. “Who is going to make this place work if we can’t afford to live here anymore?”

Lamont is no newcomer to housing issues at Whistler. A member of the WHA board from 2001 to 2005 (she sat on the Whistler 2020 Resident Housing Task Force and the Resident Affordability Task Force as well), Lamont also served as a member of the WHA’s predecessor, the Whistler Valley Housing Authority, from 1990 to 1996. She adds: “I have a bit of history with this subject as I was the staff planner for the municipality who worked on most of the affordable housing projects, research and policy during the early 1990s.”

That’s why she’s so uneasy with what’s been going on of late. Her experience tells her that all the recent controversy over resident housing could have easily been nipped in the bud. “It’s all about process,” she says. “If the Housing Authority had gone directly to the people involved and said: ‘Hey — we have a problem. How are we going to work it out?’ I’m sure they could have found some common ground. Instead they chose to use a top-down decision process.”

She sighs in frustration. “The process was entirely flawed. People should have been told right from the start: ‘Look — we appreciate your position. We really want you to stay at Whistler. So let’s sit down together and devise a working solution to this issue.’ Instead they created an Us-Versus-Them scenario that has split the community and threatens to alienate the very people we need at Whistler right now.”

According to Caroline, Whistler’s current problems need to be seen in an historical context. “I think we got carried away with our own success,” she says. “Six or seven years ago, when the resort was really rocking, most of the people in the community were too busy to care.” Things were good, money was coming in. Why worry? So the people running Whistler were left with no choice but to make decisions with very little public input. “And then things tightened up,” she says. “The resort business slowed down and visits dropped. But the decision makers ran the town — and spent taxpayers’ money — like we were still on top of the world. And with the coming of the Olympics with its tight deadlines and such, even if public input was desirable — there was no time or opportunity for it…”

The result, she says, is a situation she likes to call the “one-way mirror ceiling.” When asked to expound on this term, she laughs. “We can look up and see the decisions being made,” she says, “but no matter how hard we try we cannot touch or influence them. For whatever reason, the decision makers choose not to see us…”

The result? “There’s a whole bunch of people in this community who are desperate to get Whistler back on track, but they are unable to break through the ceiling and get involved unless they are part of this very tight insider group. And that,” she says emphatically, “has to change if Whistler is to become the great resort community that everyone knows it can become.”

Like so many residents, Caroline Lamont’s path to Whistler was more serendipitous than planned. “I was staying with a friend in Invermere during a cross-country trip,” she recounts, “and we were looking through the want ads in the Vancouver Sun when I saw a posting from Whistler. They were looking for a planning analyst for the municipality. And on a whim, I decided to apply.”

The year was 1989. And Caroline, an urban planning grad from Ryerson University in Toronto, was intrigued. “I liked the idea that I’d be doing a lot of different things in this job while skiing or running during my lunch hour,” she says. But when she got the position, she realized that “doing a lot of things” at a place like Whistler meant being assigned to such projects as planning for a heliport. “My work experience prior to that had been dealing with skyscraper development for a Toronto law firm,” she laughs. “And at the time, I thought ‘what does a city girl know about mountain heliports?’ But that was the fun part. There was such a can-do attitude here during those years that no one felt intimidated by new challenges…”

Speaking of challenges, she met her future husband, Grant Lamont, during the great flood of 1991. “I’d seen him around at Loonie races and such,” she recounts, “but it wasn’t until the flood closed the roads, and we were all hanging out together at the Boot Pub that we were properly introduced.”

Caroline admits that meeting the colourful and eclectic Lamont changed the course of her life. “Up until that point, I still thought of myself as a temporary resident of Whistler. I still had my job in Toronto and I had always planned to go back there. But Grant introduced me to a whole new community here — the bikers and ski bums and mountain people who had nothing to do with the muni or its politics. It really broadened my world.”

She continued to work for the municipality until her son, Mahon, was born in 1996. Soon after, the family decided to move to Colorado, where Caroline had been offered the job of Director of Planning Services for the City of Steamboat Springs. “It was a great experience,” she says of her work stint in America. “That’s where I learned the importance of encouraging employees to grow and develop.” She smiles. “Nobody has all the answers. The only way you can make sure you’re covered is to surround yourself with people who are curious, energetic — and aren’t afraid to ask questions!”

But Canada was never far away from her heart. “Grant wasn’t able to get a work visa in the U.S., and I was soon pregnant with our daughter, Caleigh,” she explains. “Besides — we’d only planned to go for a couple of years. And we really missed Whistler.” They returned home in 1999. “We hadn’t been gone all that long,” she says, “but we soon discovered just how much things had changed while we were away. Everything had become so up-market. No more duct tape on our friends’ ski pants. No more old gear. It seemed like everyone had totally bought in and benefited from Whistler’s new role as the leading mountain resort in North America.”

She sighs. “This used to be such a creative place,” she says. “We used to be so inventive in coming up with solutions to challenging problems. We were so proud of being West Coast and different. But we’ve gotten too safe. We’re afraid to take chances now.”

Her solution? “There is only one way to deal with these issues,” she says. “You have to be sincere; you have to be totally committed to new and unconventional ways of getting people re-engaged in building the future here.”

Never one to shy away from a good idea, Caroline leaves me with one last thought to consider. “What about assembling an outside-the-box resident forum?” she suggests. “There are a lot of very interesting, very unordinary people living at Whistler. But we don’t tap into their creativity enough. So what would happen if we assembled a group of these independent-minded thinkers — men and women, young and old, rich and poor, recent arrivals and long-time locals — and empowered them to come up with new and great initiatives for the community? What would happen if this group was paid to produce independent quarterly reports with recommendations for both Tourism Whistler and the municipality?”

She smiles. And then answers her own question. “I think we would be blown away with the resources and inventiveness that we have in our own community.” She pauses for just a moment. Smiles again. “Now that’s an Olympic legacy Whistler could really be proud of.”