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Editorial

Connecting the dots, and the peaks

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I wasn’t especially worked up when Whistler-Blackcomb announced a few weeks ago it was investigating building a gondola to connect the Roundhouse Lodge on Whistler Mountain with the Rendezvous on Blackcomb. If it happens, I thought, it would be an engineering coup, sort of on par with replacing the entire deck of the Lions Gate Bridge at night while traffic continued over the bridge every day – impressive when you think about it, but most of us only really care about is getting to where we’re going. If it doesn’t happen, the mountains still provide damn good skiing.

But I’ve changed my mind. I’m getting worked up by the suggestions that the proposed Peak to Peak Gondola is a "Disneyland" lift, that it’s an "arrogant" move, that it is "just going to be another hazard for aircraft" and, most of all, that it doesn’t open up new skiing terrain.

When Blackcomb put a T-Bar on 7th Heaven in 1985 it was a bold step, designed to make Blackcomb the mile high mountain and to outdo then-rival Whistler Mountain.

When Whistler Mountain built a chair up to the peak that was a bold move, designed to outdo Blackcomb.

Both lifts opened up new skiing terrain, and there was some mild criticism for doing that. For 20 years the peak and Burntstew Basin had been the domain of those who hiked to earn their turns. 7th Heaven, in the opinion of many ski industry people, just didn’t make much sense: it was rocky, south-facing and on the windward side of the mountain. Suddenly they were both open to anyone who could ride a lift.

Skiers (and that’s all there was back in the mid-80s) quickly overcame any reservations they had about the two lifts once they got a taste of the terrain they opened up. And the fact that they opened up new terrain distinguishes the Peak Chair and 7th Heaven from the Peak to Peak Gondola proposal, but all three are born from the same sort of innovative thinking that Whistler so desperately needs right now.

The Peak to Peak Gondola is designed to outdo Whistler-Blackcomb’s competitors, and that means all of Whistler’s competitors – from ski areas to video games to cruise ships. No, it doesn’t open up new ski terrain – something that is much more controversial today than it was in the mid-80s. But it’s not a question of spending $50 million on opening up new terrain or $50 million on the Peak to Peak Gondola. One reason Whistler-Blackcomb hasn’t opened up more terrain is because skier numbers don’t warrant it. The Peak to Peak project is intended to help boost visitor numbers year-round, and perhaps if it does do that it will eventually lead to the opening of more ski terrain.

In October, when the clouds mercifully lift every few days to expose new snow on the mountains, heightening anticipation of the season ahead, any thoughts that Whistler is stuck in a downward business spiral are incongruous with visions of oneself arcing through fresh powder. But Whistler is in the tourism business, and business sucks. The latest projections for winter visitor numbers, reported last week, are not encouraging. Ken Melamed, not generally considered the most business-oriented of the mayoralty candidates, says the local economy is the number one issue in this fall’s election.

The idea that Whistler is in business often seems to run counter to the hedonistic nature of skiing and boarding and the spiritual nature of the mountains. "The town is losing its soul," is a refrain that has been heard since the mid-70s when a conscious decision was made to turn Whistler into a destination resort. And it is true that a town can lose its soul, or even just its appeal, in increments. But you are also not going to discover the true nature of a town only by judging what its people have done to the landscape.

One of the challenges for Whistler is to help the economy grow without committing to additional physical growth. The Peak to Peak Gondola would seem to accomplish that. The return of passenger rail service next spring should also help. Something on Lots 1 and 9 that draws residents and visitors into the village would be another stimulus.

None of these is the silver bullet that will end all of Whistler’s financial problems, and none of them open up new ski terrain. And while they are business decisions, they aren’t soul-robbing decisions that will make Whistler less of a ski town.

The soul of a town exists in the people who live there, which is why the economy, affordability and housing are always issues in Whistler.

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