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Whistler punching above its weight


Premier Gordon Campbell probably didn’t chose his 14-member technology council, which will advise him on how to turn British Columbia into "a global magnet for high-tech investment," based on where they live or own second homes. But the fact six of the 14 live or have places in Whistler has not gone unnoticed.

This doesn’t mean the Whistler valley is about to become the next Silicon Valley, but it is another indication that Whistler, and what Whistler represents, is more in step with the Liberal government than it was the NDP, and that bodes well for Whistler.

Both the NDP and the Social Credit governments of the 1970s can take credit for the creation of Whistler, although it was Social Credit’s bailout of Whistler in the early ’80s that most people remember. The Socreds felt such attachment to Whistler they held their 1986 leadership convention here.

When the Social Credit party ended in self-immolation barely five years later, the NDP returned to power. Mike Harcourt, the first of four NDP premiers in the last decade, was a regular Whistler visitor and believed in tourism as an important part of the provincial economy. Glen Clark, his successor, visited Whistler when his son was in a hockey tournament here. Dan Miller’s roots and heart were always in Prince Rupert, and Ujjal Dosanjh was too busy trying to recover from Clark’s follies to get a read on.

Now the province has returned to a pro-business government, and Whistler is very much a business town as opposed to a labour town. Moreover, Whistler is in a position to influence the Liberal government far more than other towns of 10,000 people. In political parlance, Whistler may be punching above its weight.

To Whistler detractors, this is nothing new. Whistler has often been seen to receive special attention. The response has been that Whistler’s goals often parallel the province’s goals, and that is truer today than ever before.

Re-starting the B.C. economy by improving the business climate is the cornerstone of the Liberal plan. The technology council is part of that plan, as is the Vancouver-Whistler 2010 Olympic bid. The bid is expected to be a catalyst for any number of capital projects, from improving transportation in the Lower Mainland and the Sea to Sky corridor, to a new trade and convention centre on the Vancouver waterfront. Building these projects will generate economic activity, but they – like the Olympics themselves – are also expected to generate more business for Vancouver, Whistler and the province in the long term.

With Whistler being a major part of the Olympic bid, and the Olympic bid part of the economic plan, Whistler is obviously going to get a lot of attention from Victoria over the next 18 months, when the bid is officially submitted. Mayor Hugh O’Reilly and municipal administrator Jim Godfrey, as Whistler’s representatives on the Olympic Bid Corporation, have Victoria’s ear. Former Whistler mayor Ted Nebbeling, as minister of state for community charter and minister responsible for the Olympic bid, also has a key role.

But it’s Nebbeling’s portfolio as minister of state for community charter that may have an even greater long-term impact for Whistler than the Olympics. One of the key components of the proposed community charter is giving municipalities increased taxing authority. This is something the Union of B.C. Municipalities has sought, but it’s something Whistler has studied for years. American mountain resorts which, like Whistler, must provide services and infrastructure for visitors as well as their resident populations, have long employed some form of tax on visitors. Whether this new taxing authority will reduce the burden on Whistler property owners remains to be seen, but it should at least slow property tax increases.

Changes through the community charter are designed to help all municipalities, but Whistler may be among the first and most eager to take advantage of the opportunity. That would please the Liberals, as they appear to have an understanding of Whistler’s value to the provincial economy.