Opinion » Maxed Out

Another piece of the campaign platform...

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As the Campagne de Fous limps into its third week, I take heart, in a very uneasy way, in Doug Ford's "victory" to become the head of Ontario's Progressive Conservative — oxymoron alert! — Party. Doug is a buffoon. We share that in common. He is a conservative buffoon, however; I am a liberal buffoon with latent redneck tendencies. That's enough of a difference for me. Whether enough Ontario voters are paisan with his brand of buffoonery remains to be seen. But having served nine years of a possible life sentence in Ontario and witnessed the governments of both Bob Rae and Mike Harris, I wouldn't put any lapse of judgment past them.

I also take heart in welcoming David McKay as an honourary member of the Never-Ending Party, since he seems to agree with my platform on extending the provincial NDP's ill-named speculation tax to Whistler's non-resort properties. Mr. McKay, if you're not familiar with the name, is CEO of Royal Bank, making him about as blue-blooded a capitalist as anyone can be in the socialist republic of Canuckistan.

As CEO of Canada's largest bank, he recently hosted and addressed a bank conference in New York. In calm, banker-like tones, he had this to say: "We do not need foreign capital using Canadian real estate as a piggy bank. If capital is coming in to sit in a home, unproductively, and is distorting your marketplace and the livelihood of your residents — no, thank you." (Italics mine)

He went on to express support for taxes and other governmental measures aimed at foreign buyers.

The Earth tilted on its axis.

In case you're wondering, Royal Bank is the largest mortgage lender in the country. They make oodles of money off mortgages. For purely profit-driven reasons, they should be applauding foreign speculators who want to park money in Canadian real estate, thereby driving up prices to levels mere residents can't afford but are willing to go into hock up to their eyeballs to try.

But even as steely-eyed a capitalist as Mr. McKay undoubtedly is, he knows a bad thing when he sees it. He recognizes "unproductive" capital parked in empty houses screws neighbourhoods, towns, cities and, yes, even resort municipalities and the people who live there.

While he didn't come out with a slogan as inviting as Residences for Residents!, I will. Having said that, a recent unofficial missive to our mayor and councillors asking them to consider an in-depth discussion of requesting Victoria to consider extending its, let's call it a foreign-buyer tax, yielded just three responses, all generally in favour. The other four effectively mimicked the sound of one hand clapping. Alas.

But having already outlined the plank in my platform dealing with foreign buyers, I wish to move on to another housing-related issue: rightsizing the resort.

Whistler is burdened, and has been for years, with a too-large lodging base. There are historical reasons so many resort land condos that look like hotels, but aren't, were built. But, unfortunately, building them did not mean they would come. The fact is, with a few exceptions on a few rare days, they have never come in sufficient numbers to warrant the number of hotel (like) beds the resort has. That is why we have been frantically tempting them by festivalizing and animating the resort and pouring RMI funds into putting heads in beds otherwise empty.

Hotel-room occupancy has seemingly been the overriding metric by which Whistler has measured its success against our stated vision: To be the premier mountain resort community... as it moves toward sustainability.

I was sitting at a table with three councillors at the Community Forum last week on the Official Community Plan. In commenting on how uncrowded the mountains seemed to most people this season, one commented it wasn't surprising given hotel occupancy was running at something like 63 per cent. I don't know if that was an accurate statement and, more importantly, I don't care. It reveals a mindset focused on that one, defining metric. Whether overall occupancy is 63 per cent or 83 per cent isn't important. What's important is this: increasing that number seems to be paramount.

Which brings me back to rightsizing. I replied, "Heck, we could bring that up another 20 per cent with the stroke of a pen." In response to the expected, "How?" I said all it would take would be to remove a number of marginal condo hotels out of the equation. Remove them from resort lands, relieve them of paying Tourism Whistler (TW) fees, convert them all to residential status and, voila, you can peg occupancy at whatever level you want.

"The owners would howl," was the response. Maybe, maybe not. Don't know until you try. I suspect many of them would be relieved. No more Phase I/Phase II covenant, no more commercial property taxes, no more TW fees, freedom to use their units as they chose, heck, even rent them out to locals year-round. And having already paid a residential price for their condos — not a commercial price that would have been pegged to cashflow the units generated, which is often slim to none — their value would likely be little affected.

There is no doubt our bloated lodging sector is a prime factor in the other challenges Whistler faces. More rooms have meant more effort to fill them, which has been pretty successful. More tourists in more rooms have required more retail, more food and beverage, more transport, more housekeeping and more ancillary services, all of which have and continue to require more workerbees, who require more houses, more parking, more services, all of which fuel the frenzy to build more employee housing, which leads to more Mayor's task forces and more unwanted proposals like... you know the one.

I don't think there are very many people in town who believe "premier," as in premier mountain resort, means biggest. Do we want to be biggest? I suspect there are many who don't want to be as big as we are. There are certainly a lot who would appreciate less crowding, less frenzy, less traffic and way, way less cost of lodging.

The ultimate irony can be read in the letters from the hotel sector — more often than not the form letters — received by the municipality encouraging the recent Nordic proposal. They want the kind of higher-priced apartments proposed for their important staff that are going to be here a year or two. Excuse me? You're running a hotel with occupancy so low the municipality and TW have to do everything in their power to increase it and you need housing for your important, mid-level managerial staff? Am I the only one who wonders why they don't live in your unoccupied rooms?

So hand me a hammer and I'll nail this plank into the Campagne. Rightsize the resort and Residences for Residents. Catchy, eh?

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