Im not an economist or an accountant, in fact I used to have trouble trying to make change when I had to take payment for a classified ad, but there are enough ominous signs out there to give anyone pause to reflect on the short-term economy in Whistler.
First off there was last weeks news that the $10 million library/museum project is under review. After a year of fundraising for $5 million (only $3 million was needed to start construction but the final $2 million would still have to be raised) $600,000 had been collected or promised. There are any number of reasons and theories why the campaign has been so slow, some official and some off the record, but the fact is if "only" $600,000 can be raised in a year its going to take five years before the building can be started, and another three and a half years after that to finish paying for it. And thats with the municipalitys half of the $10 million in the bank.
But there are lots of other ominous signs the local economy is under stress, including the signs in many village store windows that say "Sale!" Winter sports equipment and clothing always gets discounted as spring starts to appear and retailers begin to clear out inventory, but in many peoples minds spring started a couple of weeks ago, meaning an early end to the winter season the make or break period for most local retailers.
Then you throw in the road closures for highway work that are now scheduled to start March 24, a month earlier than expected. Any closures of Highway 99 worry Whistler businesses, but when they start in the middle of the spring break period and continue through Easter and the World Ski and Snowboard Festival, it gets a little scary. Its through the World Ski and Snowboard Festival, aggressive marketing and hard work that Whistler has, in recent years, been able to turn April into a profitable month, extending the winter season in a town where businesses expect to lose money at least four and probably five out of 12 months.
Theres also the knowledge that if Vancouver and Whistler are awarded the 2010 Olympics, highway construction, and highway closures, will be a fact of life for the next six years.
Then there are the general industry trends. With the downturn in the economy over the last two years, and the advent of the Internet, many people are waiting until the last minute to book vacations. That doesnt mean any fewer people are coming to Whistler, but it makes it more difficult to predict how many people are coming.
And finally there are factors well beyond Whistler that may affect tourism in general. The provinces new gasoline tax isnt likely to encourage car travel in B.C. this summer, particularly on a highway that will have periodic closures. The pending war on Iraq and the chaos in Venezuela arent going to help gasoline prices either.
If there is a war in Iraq, and depending on how long it lasts, air travel is also going to be affected. Whistler may feel those impacts next winter.
It isnt all doom and gloom but there is reason to be cautious, as economists like to say.
However, there is no sign of caution from some who continue to view Whistler as a cow to be milked. Some landlords in the village are showing signs that with the Olympics on the horizon rents may follow the Olympic motto: swifter, higher, stronger.
Victoria also seems to see nothing but blue skies for Whistler, deciding that no relief is needed from the ridiculous school property tax situation that saw Whistler single-family homeowners pay an average of $2,273 last year, and Whistler property owners responsible for roughly three-quarters of the residential school taxes collected in the district.
In fact, school property taxes will increase 2.5 per cent this year. Coupled with the average 35 per cent increase in Whistler assessments this year, that means the school taxes on Whistler homes will increase substantially. Of course its not just the homeowners who will foot that increase; in many cases it will be passed on to tenants in the form of higher rent.
The Liberals in Victoria like what Whistler does for the provincial treasury and the provincial economy. The only thing they want is more. How else can you explain the decision to not grant Whistler some relief on school property taxes, despite the fact the Liberals specifically created a provision for situations like Whistlers? Its particularly frustrating for a Whistler contingent that has spent much of the last year making the case for tax relief, and easing the burden on the resident population.