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An industry in context

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Downhill Slide takes dead aim at ski industry and towns like Whistler

"If we don’t change the direction we are headed, we are likely to end up where we are going."

By G.D. Maxwell

The words are deceptively simple. But like many simple thoughts, they grasp a profound truth often lost in the business of day-to-day living. When I read them, a couple of days before our most recent exercise in democracy, they chilled me. That’s partly because they so accurately encapsulated the challenge Whistler faces – deciding what kind of town we want be in the future and then rising to the challenge of making it happen – but mostly because of what was on the 239 pages I had to read through before I got to them.

The words are the last sentence of Hal Clifford’s new book, Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment . You might gather from the title this book is not about the happyface side of the ski biz as it has come to be practised at the dawn of the 21 st century.

Clifford, former editor of the Aspen Daily News and SKI Magazine , inveterate ski bum and writer, paints a picture of an industry in decline. The decline is fuelled in equal parts by the demographic reality of aging baby boomers, nosebleed prices driven by huge, capital-intensive operations, and a triumvirate of publicly-traded corporations growing fat off cheap public land, real estate sales and the packaging of "experiences" for well-heeled guests. As suggested, the losers in this dance are the sport we love, the towns we live in and the environment we defile for our pleasure.

Just to break your suspense, the villains of the piece are Vail Resorts Incorporated, American Skiing Company, and our own Intrawest Corporation. But they’re not the only villains. Not by a long shot.

The US Department of Agriculture, home of both the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, join the drama and receive healthy doses of derision and antipathy for their too cozy relationships that result in land deals with the big three short on husbandry and long on mutual back scratchin’.

Others in the supporting cast include ineffective and co-opted town officials, overzealous developers, and even the good common folk who sold out and moved on, often simply because their former quaint ski town had morphed into something they no longer recognized but just as often because they couldn’t resist the temptation to take the money and run.

The book is historic in its scope and mostly Coloradoan in its focus. The conclusions to be drawn and lessons to be learned transcend borders though. The penultimate chapter, Commuters or Communities, paints a bleak picture of a possible future for a town not unlike ours. While focusing on feeder communities for Vail and Aspen – daily commutes in excess of 100 miles each direction – it graphically underscores the downward spiral "resort" communities face when people who work in them can no longer afford to live in them.

Generously footnoted and diligently researched, the book is not without its mistakes. Clifford, for example, places Whistler in the wrong mountain range and implies the town itself is the work of Intrawest. While these and other inaccuracies will doubtless be pounced on by those who take issue with his basic themes, they don’t detract from the book’s messages. They certainly don’t blunt what it has to say about the future of skiing and the hope many Whistlerites cling to… that we might find a way to grow old gracefully in the town we’ve come to love.

If all the talk about sustainability, affordable housing, economic diversity, teardown policies, core values and liveability sometimes make you feel like you’re caught up in a vortex you don’t understand very well, Downhill Slide isn’t going to make you feel like your world’s spinning any slower. It might help focus your thoughts though and it just might jar your memory about what brought you to this place to begin with. It will also suggest some of the things we need to do if we’re serious about changing the direction we are heading in and stop this madness before we arrive at where we’re heading.

Put it on your Must Read list.

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