By Alison Taylor
Council capped its tax break for the proposed Peak to Peak gondola at $750,000 Monday night and added several caveats to the record-breaking project.
“I think it’s reasonable to hold to that number,” said Mayor Ken Melamed, as council began to approve the bylaws that will allow a tax exemption for the project.
The cap translates to roughly $150,000 in tax relief for each of the next five years, as allowed under the Community Charter. It’s designed to add incentive for companies undertaking major capital investments.
The mayor also asked Whistler-Blackcomb to provide a written report on the environmental mitigation measures it will be taking as it builds the gondola towers and stations in the alpine.
A third caveat to the tax break was that the company take steps to reduce the visual impact of the project, which will see a world-record breaking gondola stretch between the Rendezvous on Blackcomb Mountain and the Roundhouse on Whistler.
Melamed offered suggestions to reduce the impact to one of Whistler’s postcard perfect views. He suggested using non-reflective glass for the cabin windows or removing the cabins from the line or shunting them to either end when the gondola is not in use.
Voting on the bylaws, which received first, second and third reading Monday, also gave councillors another chance to reiterate their opposition or support for the project in a public forum.
Just as they did two weeks ago when the tax exemption request first came before council, Councillors Nancy Wilhelm-Morden and Eckhart Zeidler voiced their disapproval.
Wilhelm-Morden said the project would be built regardless of council’s decision.
“The issue in front of us is whether we are prepared to give a tax break… to a very profitable company in order to improve its bottom line,” she said. “To me this seems so self-evidently wrong.”
Councillor Bob Lorriman took issue with the comments, saying that he didn’t recall Whistler-Blackcomb promising to build the project without the tax exemption.
“I don’t think it matters how much money these people have,” added Lorriman.
If giving the tax break increases the chances of the company building the project in Whistler as opposed to somewhere else, that’s a good reason to support it, he said.
The gondola is expected to benefit the community, by drawing more visitors, keeping it successful in the long term, and increased tax revenues will flow to the municipality after five years.
“Five years is so short-sighted,” he added.
According to Whistler-Blackcomb’s projections, the $51 million gondola should boost room nights in the resort by five per cent.
That would increase the resort’s hotel tax by more than $600,000 annually.
Even if the gondola increases room nights by just two per cent, there would be a return on hotel tax of more than $240,000 annually.
Councillor Tim Wake highlighted that return on investment. The two per cent increase puts more back into municipal coffers than the tax exemption takes out.
Whistler-Blackcomb has created a subsidiary company to build the gondola, called Peak 2 Peak Ltd.
It still needs approval from its parent companies, Intrawest and Fortress Investment Group, before construction on the Peak to Peak gondola can move ahead. It will take 18 months to complete once they get the green light.