News » Tourism

Colorado ski towns find lessons in Whistler

Housing the highlight for visiting delegates



Prior to this past August, the last time Whistler's mayor and council visited Colorado was in 1996.

Current Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden was a municipal councillor at the time.

"I remember so distinctly that we were in Aspen for a day and a half before I saw a child because the town was empty," Wilhelm-Morden recalled.

Like Whistler, Aspen was having problems maintaining affordable housing for locals.

"We came back from that field trip and shortly thereafter formed the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) as a direct result of the lessons we had learned from Aspen and Vale," Wilhelm-Morden said.

And nearly two decades later, it was the accomplishments of the WHA that most impressed a visiting delegation from the Colorado Association of Ski Towns (CAST) Jan. 20 and 21.

During its trip to Whistler, the 30-person party took in presentations from Tourism Whistler, the Whistler Chamber of Commerce and the RMOW planning department.

But the highlight came on a tour of Whistler's affordable housing stock.

"Just the variety and the diversity of housing was really impressive, and then how you've taken the athletes village from the Olympics and then turned that into something that's functional is really impressive as well," said Joyce Burford, executive director of CAST.

During the meeting, CAST members — which include all the big names in Colorado ski towns such as Aspen, Vail and Breckenridge — learned about Whistler's history, sustainability and environmental issues and how it does its long-term planning.

"Members come back from meetings like this pretty energized... people were taking notes and taking pictures," Burford said.

"Everyone takes back something a little different, but they all come back very energized."

Despite being in indirect competition with each other, the mutual challenges many ski towns face make this kind of fraternizing worthwhile, Wilhelm-Morden said.

"We're not going to be disclosing any super-confidential trade secrets and neither are they, but we do have issues of mutual concern — housing, workforce, how we find employees, transportation issues," the mayor said.

"Some of those big issues are all common amongst us, and to the extent that we can share lessons learned and assist one another, then of course we will do that."

But it wasn't just the operational side of things that impressed CAST members.

"Yesterday was just amazing with all the powder (the mountains) got, the size of the mountains and the runs... we skied our hearts out," Burford said. "Everyone was exhausted and tired, but they could not stop talking about how great it was."

According to Wilhelm-Morden, some of the CAST members pledged to come back with delegations from their respective towns so they can "look more closely and in more detail about the achievements of the WHA, because they were just blown away by it," she said.

"To show them what we did as a result of those lessons learned (in 1996) is very gratifying. Almost all of them are still grappling with housing issues, and I'm not saying we've wrestled it to the ground, but we are way ahead of the game."