The executive director of the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, Casey Vanden Heuvel, estimates $96 million in capital investment has gone and will go into cultural facilities in and around Whistler Village in about 13 years. Those facilities include Millennium Place, the Whistler Public Library, Whistler Museum, Olympic Plaza, the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre and the Audain Museum, which should break ground by September and be open by early 2015.
This investment — by municipal taxpayers, senior governments, private citizens and the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations — is interesting when considered in the context of the Economic Partnership Initiative committee's recently published report.
One of the key EPI findings was demonstrating how important winter destination visitors are to Whistler's economy.
As Dave Brownlie, president and CEO of Whistler Blackcomb and a member of the EPI committee, said, "You talk about maybe going off and doing new things — diversity is a big topic in the community... and it becomes very clear that we need to leverage the infrastructure and resources that we have..."
Brownlie was making the point that Whistler Blackcomb, through the skiers it attracts, is the biggest driver of the local economy, a point sometimes overlooked when discussing ways to expand or diversify the economy. But his words hold true for more than Whistler Blackcomb: "...we need to look at the things that are also driving and are important to the economy today and not forget about them."
It would be a stretch to say that "culture" is a key driver of the local economy today, if culture is defined as traditional "high" arts. Culture may include any activities, traditions and practices, not just what is commonly referred to as "the arts." And if you accept this definition then Whistler already has plenty of culture.
But with $96 million invested in cultural facilities Whistler has, or will have by 2015, a significant "high art" cultural infrastructure that should be leveraged to help drive the local economy.
It's difficult to predict what impact the Audain Museum will have when it opens but the expectation is it will be significant. Michael Audain's private collection, including West Coast First Nations art, is recognized throughout the art world. The museum will also host travelling exhibitions of important artwork.
Many communities in British Columbia, including West Vancouver and the City of Vancouver, would love to have Audain build his museum and house his collection in their town. But he has chosen Whistler. And it may be that the $30 million facility provides the boost needed for culture to reach critical mass in Whistler.
In the late 1970s, the first buildings planned for Village Square specifically included a grocery store, a pub, a liquor store, a pharmacy, a hardware store and restaurants, so that the new village brought residents and visitors together and became the commercial core. The Audain Museum may do the same for what Vanden Heuvel has dubbed the Cultural Corridor, the area that includes the Whistler library and museum, Olympic Plaza, Millennium Place and the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre.
The Audain Museum is the key piece that makes this area a corridor. The SLCC wants to make sure that corridor is continuous. They have plans for a pedestrian bridge across Fitzsimmons Creek and interpretive exhibits in the landscape on the east side of the creek. The Audain Museum will have outdoor exhibits on the west side of the creek and Village Park already includes a significant amount of public art. Together they will add an outdoor component to the cultural corridor.
While the EPI committee findings emphasize the importance of skier visits, they also appear to mesh well with the concept that culture can become a significant part of the local economy. The Cultural Corridor facilities are all available in the winter, when the high-spending destination visitors are in Whistler. But they come alive in the summer — as last weekend's Children's Arts Festival in Olympic Plaza showed. And as the EPI committee report noted, summer represents an opportunity to grow business: accommodation rates and occupancy levels are relatively low in summer and there are a lot of day visitors who could be turned into overnight guests.
As well, there would seem to be great opportunity to grow destination visitor numbers in the summer. Several airlines add or increase flights to Vancouver in the summer. The cruise ship business in Vancouver remains strong. And Whistler's summer climate is attractive to people living in humid and often sweltering parts of North America, such as those on the (cultured) East Coast.
As the EPI committee stressed, Whistler should build on its strengths and use its infrastructure to full advantage. Skiing and snowboarding will continue to be the core of the local economy for the foreseeable future. But cultural facilities have also become a key part of Whistler's infrastructure. They too should be used to their full advantage.