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Council: The final countdown

With one year left in their term, Whistler's rockstar mayor and council reflect on what's been accomplished and the work left to come

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When Whistler's mayor and council were elected in 2014, it was with a clear mandate of staying the course.

The community was happy with its direction, for the most part — a fact reflected in the relatively small number of candidates that stepped forward for the 2014 vote — and so council carried on with the work it began in 2011.

Big-ticket items, general upkeep, booming visitation, and ultimately, a creeping sense of anxiety among locals defined the first three years of the term.

With the resort busier than it's ever been, where do we go from here? How much growth is too much?

Can current challenges around housing and transportation be solved? Or will Whistler buckle and break under the weight of its own success?

Pique spoke with each of the community's elected officials to get a sense of what's been accomplished over their term, and to look at what's in store as we head towards a full municipal election in 2018.

If recent trends are any indication, it should be a wild one.

TAKING STOCK

Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden has served so many years on council it takes her some time to count them all up.

Wilhelm-Morden served as a councillor from 1984 to '86, '88 to '90, '97 to 2000 and 2005 to 2008 before being elected mayor for the first time in 2011.

All told, she's got 15 years of experience behind the council table.

It's safe to say she's been witness to some big changes.

"In 1984 when I was first elected, of course we were in the depths of a really major recession, and Whistler had a half-finished hockey arena where the conference centre is now, and some big holes in the village with rebar sticking out of them, and nothing going on," Wilhelm-Morden recalled.

"They were pretty scary times actually."

But then the province stepped in to bail Whistler out of near-bankruptcy, and the resort entered into a boom period in the late '80s.

Over the years, Wilhelm-Morden watched as Whistler Village was completed, construction began on Village North, development took place on the Benchlands and Blueberry Hill, new subdivisions were planned and executed for Cheakamus Crossing and Rainbow, and of course, there was Whistler's shining moment in 2010 when it hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

"Yeah, I've been around the block," she said with a laugh.

"I've held such a unique position of growing up with the town of Whistler. There are very few people who get to experience that kind of a thing, and I feel very privileged for having seen it."

Councillor John Grills, first elected in 2011, has watched the transformation, too — the Whistler of today is a far cry from the "sleepy little town" Grills first saw when he stepped off a bus in 1975.

"I've been here for good days and I've been here for some awful, awful days," he said.

It was actually one of the reasons he decided to run for office, he added.

"We were post-Olympics, we were without strong direction. I have a lot of friends in business, and they were struggling," Grills said.

"Some people had given up and left the community, and I wasn't prepared to do that, so the other option was to just get in there and see if we could help make things better."

After the 2011 election, council had a clear mandate: bring the municipal budget under control, reduce costs, reduce taxation, and kickstart the economy.

"We took great steps in those first three years for laying that groundwork," Wilhelm-Morden said, pointing to things like the Economic Partnership Initiative and three years of zero tax increases from 2012 to 2014.

The results have been transformative: record visitation and occupancy levels, the virtual disappearance of shoulder seasons, and some of the busiest days the resort has ever seen.

"In this latter three years, we've seen the fruit of that work," the mayor said.

"Along with some, what I've been calling, unintended consequences."

ANXIOUS DAYS

While recently released Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) corporate and community-monitoring reports continue to show strong economic results, indicators around housing, affordability, transportation, greenhouse-gas emissions, and more are all starting to slide.

Similar trends can be found in the most recent Community Life Survey.

In short, community satisfaction is slipping, due mostly to increasing busyness and growth.

Asked about some of the negative sentiment on Whistler's social media channels as of late, Wilhelm-Morden pointed out some interesting timing — the mayor had just attended a Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) seminar on "uncivil civil engagement," she said with a laugh.

"Most of the social media posts that I see are not uncivil. I'm not implying that at all, but you're right: There is some anxiety and some angst in the community," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"To a certain extent, it is wrapped up in housing... housing is a fundamental right, and when people have difficulty securing it, it reflects over the course of our society and our culture in Whistler. So we are addressing those needs, and hopefully allaying or easing some of that anxiety."

Wilhelm-Morden cited the work of the Mayor's Task Force on Resident Housing, which aims to add 1,000 new beds to Whistler's employee housing stock over the next five years, as something she is particularly proud of in the last year.

Whistlerites are passionate about the place they call home, and so maybe a little anxiety is only natural given the current circumstances.

"We're in a bit of a battle for the soul of our community. It's a battle I'm convinced we'll win," said Coun. Jack Crompton.

"We all want Whistler to remain all that it is, and for that to happen it must be a place where young people can live, work and start families. People share that vision for Whistler, and so when they see it threatened, they have to speak up for the place they love."

Despite the current challenges facing the community, Crompton described himself as an "incurable optimist" when it comes to the future of Whistler.

"Affordable housing and keeping Whistlerites in Whistler is fundamental to winning that battle," he said.

"Whistler is what it is because of the people who raise families here, who ski here, who bike here, who love this place as deeply as we do."

NEW FACES NO MORE

When the votes were counted on Nov .15, 2014, Whistler had three new faces at the council table: Jen Ford, Sue Maxwell and Steve Anderson joined incumbents Wilhelm-Morden, Crompton, Grills and the late Andrée Janyk, who sadly passed away from cancer in June.

The newcomers were joining a council that had been famous for unanimity, with just a handful of dissenting votes through its entire three-year term, and one with some big work already in progress.

With three years now under their belts, the first-time councillors are rookies no more.

But the work never ends.

"This is not something that you can enter into lightly," said Ford, who attended nearly every council meeting in the three years prior to being elected.

"I've never taken it for granted, and I've never rested back and said, 'Yeah, I know what I'm doing here,' because as soon as I think that then I'm faced with the new thing," she added.

"It's been super challenging but it's been really a great time of growth and kind of living outside of my comfort zone a little bit, and it's good."

You can't make everyone happy, but that shouldn't stop you from trying, Ford added.

"I'm sad to say that I've disappointed some people with the way that I have voted on certain things, and it doesn't make me feel good. It doesn't make you feel proud of the way it went. It's not that you would change the way you voted, but you know, it upsets people, it hurts people," she said.

Sometimes it comes down to looking at the bigger picture, and trying to make decisions in the best interest of the entire community.

"You go into it with as much information as you can, but not necessarily the whole community will know all of that information, and therefore they won't get it, and they'll think that you've made a bad call," Ford said.

The sluggish pace of municipal affairs has proved frustrating for some first-term councillors.

"I have learned that it takes a very long time to do things," Maxwell said with a laugh. "Things do happen though, it just takes a bit of time, and it's not always a linear path."

The new members were in some ways joining a work already in progress, with a shared vision and goal still in place from the 2011 election.

"When the new people were added, there was a lot of work underway, so it was more that we were added on rather than we came up with a shared common vision, and I think that's part of why it has taken awhile for some things to move forward," Maxwell said.

Anderson echoed a similar frustration.

"I'm from private business, I've always been an entrepreneur and run my own companies, and if I want to do something I just do it, so when you're in government, you try to put what you think are good ideas forward, and stuff that just makes sense, but you don't get your way. I think it was Jack Crompton that laid it out to me and just said, 'You know, you've got to make a better argument. It's your fault,'" he said with a laugh.

"It's the difference between being in business and doing things that you want to do, and you don't have to go to committees, let's say, versus in a government where things move really, really slow," he added.

"Very slow, and that's quite frustrating, especially for people like me."

Frustrations aside, Anderson said his experience on council has been a positive one.

"We have our minor disagreements with things here and there, but overall, everyone is pulling in the same direction, and it's been worthwhile, I think," he said.

"Everybody brings something different to the table."

FROM BIG-TICKET ITEMS TO NUTS AND BOLTS

Growth anxiety aside, to hear it directly from Whistler's elected officials, much has been accomplished since 2014.

While the work of the mayor's housing tasking force and the Transportation Advisory Group were mentioned repeatedly, as were the opening of the Audain Art Museum and the new Nesters Waste Depot, every member of council had different highlights from the term.

Crompton singled out the purchase of the Parkhurst lands in March in particular.

"As we face all the pressures that we do from growth, it's great knowing we have 200 acres (81 hectares) of community-owned land on Green Lake," Crompton said. "I think it's a true legacy, historically, recreationally, environmentally. It will be community owned for a long time."

For Maxwell, updating the Community Climate and Energy Action Plan and revisions to the solid waste bylaw were highlights, while Ford was particularly excited to see new Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) builds nearing completion.

"That's an accomplishment that I think is worth mentioning, but I say it with caution. I know we have not solved the housing challenges," Ford said.

"With all of the work that the WHA has done over the last 20 years, we are an example to other communities, which is awesome, but we're not done, and we certainly haven't housed everybody."

Anderson, on the other hand, was most satisfied with local infrastructure improvements seen in recent years — the alpine water main project, waterproofing in the village, and approving some big upkeep projects in the village like the new Pangea Pod Hotel.

"I refer to that as the non-sexy part of being in municipal government — it's not a big splash. People don't really care too much about sewers and water supplies, where as myself, I'm kind of a nuts and bolts guy," Anderson said.

Some of council's other favourite accomplishments from the first three years of the term included the Whistler Skate Park; the BMX park in Cheakamus Crossing; greenlighting the Train Wreck bridge; the Cultural Connector; and more.

"We've really been busy, actually... It just goes on and on, and those are all good things," Wilhelm-Morden said.

But for now, at least, the conversation always comes back to those "unintended consequences" of growth, and how Whistler will deal with them moving forward.

The issues are solvable, the mayor believes, or manageable at the very least.

"I don't know that we can completely solve housing. Housing has been an issue since I arrived in the '70s. That doesn't mean we sit on our hands — we're not at all," she said, pointing to new recommendations from the housing task force. (Residents will get a chance to see them in more depth at a Nov. 2 community forum.)

"I'm very optimistic about where we're at."

THE CHANGING FACE OF WHISTLER

When Whistler elects a mayor and council in October 2018, many of the issues causing anxiety today will still be at the forefront of the discussion.

With Whistler2020 — the community's guiding sustainability document created in the mid '90s — nearing the end of its shelf life, it may be time for the community to take stock of where it wants to go.

"I think a lot of stuff has changed in our community, and I think now is a really good time to check in again," Maxwell said.

"Whistler2020 is just around the corner, and we need to figure out... what does the community look like? What is the right level of economic activity that matches our infrastructure, that doesn't take us on a path to never-ending growth?"

There will be much to take into account when that discussion begins, including Whistler's increasing solid waste levels and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, Maxwell added.

"We need to take a look at how much water we're using. Resident affordability, housing, and First Nations relations I think are really key, and going to become more important over time."

Whistler has been booming now for several years, but the community also needs to prepare itself for the inevitable downswing, said Ford.

"I see that in the next 10 years we're going to see an ebb, and we just need to make sure that we can withstand it," she said.

"We can't overbuild, we can't under-build... I think we need the community to kind of say, 'OK, this is where we are. Where do we want to go?'

"We're all asking: 'What does the future of Whistler look like?' and I think people are coming together on that, so that's a positive thing."

For all the challenges now facing Whistler, and even those to come beyond the current term, no one on council expressed any doubts they can be solved.

"In my entire political career, my main motivation and motivator has been what's in the best interest of the resident community, and I continue to hold that as my first principle," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"I think I'm not alone, obviously, in that regard, and I think as long as the leadership of the community maintains that principle, we'll be fine."

HEAVY HEARTS

Amidst all the talk of work plans, priorities and community anxiety, it's sometimes easy to lose sight of the human side of municipal affairs.

In the case of Whistler's mayor and council, they've been working with heavy hearts since the passing of friend and colleague Andrée Janyk in June.

"We feel it every time we meet," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"She really brought to the table a passion for the community, and for sports-related matters affecting the community, for sure. She had a deep commitment to Whistler, and yet she was very much a team player. I could give her tasks that were outside of her area of comfort, like putting her on the public art committee, and she performed in spades."

"It just took us out at the knees, for sure," Grills said of her passing.

"It was just the energy, and her way of looking at life... her eyes were wide open and her heart was open, and away she went. We had a lot of laughs together, and we did a lot of good work together. She thoroughly enjoyed her time on council."

The loss was especially noticeable at this year's UBCM convention, with other delegates making a point of sharing condolences with the Whistler council, Crompton said.

"She left such a massive mark on my life and on this town, it's hard to put it into words," he said.

"We are so much better for having had her. She made this town such a better place."

Voting Day

A byelection will be held Saturday, Oct. 28 to fill the seat of the late Janyk. The candidates: Steve Andrews, Kalee Eder, Cathy Jewett, Janice Lloyd, Alon Rimon, Kate Roddick and Dawn Titus.

Head to www.piquenewsmagazine.com for full profiles of each.

Advance voting will be available in person on Saturday, Oct. 21 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Voting will be open on Oct. 28 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (polling station details will be confirmed in the coming weeks at www.whistler.ca/election).

Mail-in ballots are available for those with physical disabilities, injuries or illnesses, as well as for those expecting to be absent on all other voting days.

 

ANXIETY INDUCED

Council has accomplished a lot in the last three years, but that's not to say their decision-making was near perfect in the eyes of the community. Here's some things people have questioned, complained about or raged against, online or at council meetings, in recent years.

Pay Parking: While well intentioned and designed to free up space and reduce congestion, the re-introduction of pay parking proved mostly unpopular with Whistlerites, who bemoaned the additional cost burden and side effects like neighbourhoods turning into parking lots.

Soccer field: Council's decision to consider spending up to $4 million next year on an artificial turf field in Whistler has sparked some passionate debate, and the discussion around this one is still going.

Inaction on housing: 1,000 beds over five years won't help those looking for homes today, and council got an earful over the resort's dire housing situation last winter (including one now-homeless gentleman who attended four council meetings in a row to grill Whistler's elected officials).

Home-based studios: Council's move to allow home-based studios in residential neighbourhoods fell flat with the local arts community, due in part to hefty fees for licensing and a requirement that all studios be approved by a municipally-formed committee.

Busy, busy, busy: A bustling economy is good for everyone, but the unintended consequences — a lack of housing, gridlock on the highways, and garbage, garbage everywhere — have far and away produced the most community anxiety in recent years.

 

Council's greatest hits

Asked for their highlights from the term, council had no shortage of things they were proud of:

Audain Art Museum and Cultural Connector

New Nesters Waste Depot

Parkhurst Lands

Alpine Water Main Project

Work of the Mayor's Task Force on Resident Housing and Transportation Advisory Group

Whistler Skate Park, BMX Park, Train Wreck Bridge and Valley Trail improvements

Continuation of programming like the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and growth in the Festivals, Events and Animation program

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