It was somewhat disconcerting to walk through the village the day before Christmas and see a large sign in a store announcing an "End of Season Sale." Not that sales prior to Christmas are unusual anymore, but the suggestion that "the season" was ending before the New Year had even begun suggested one of two things: little faith in the long-range forecast, or the sign – and sale – were leftover from the end of summer.
The end of the year is the time we deal with all the leftovers from the year ending and look for signs of faith and optimism in the year ahead. It has been a year of significant change in Whistler, starting with Hugh O’Reilly leaving the mayor’s position for warmer climes after nearly nine years in office. There was also a change at the top of Whistler’s municipal bureaucracy, with long-time administrator Jim Godfrey moving to a new Olympic position and Bill Barratt taking over the administrator position. The changes at municipal hall were completed with the November civic election, which saw Ken Melamed become mayor and five new councillors elected.
It’s a new team leading Whistler into new and changing times. The declining number of visitors the last four years, and the reasons for that decline, have been rehashed many times in the last 12 months, but that is part of the context for everything this new team does. Melamed recognized this during the election when he was asked what the main issue was, and answered unequivocally: the economy.
The weather over the Christmas-New Year period hasn’t done anything to help the local economy, obviously, which will put the issue back in front of the new municipal leaders when they get together early in the New Year to focus on goals and priorities. Municipal governments don’t have the power to set interest rates or allocate billions in spending, but their decisions can have an impact on the local economy. Determining the highest and best use of Lots 1 and 9 might be the first example that comes to many people’s minds. But it starts with recognition; recognizing, for instance, that snowmobile and snowshoe tour operators are fighting for their survival.
These types of small, independently-owned businesses are part of the foundation Whistler was built upon. From the very beginning it was local people who put their faith and funds into Whistler, long before any hotel chains or retail giants dared to risk a dollar. Not only did these people build businesses, they helped shape the character of the town. And as the new leadership team, and the rest of Whistler, looks ahead four years we need to remember that this part of the community continues to face challenges. That’s not to say that small businesses need special protection, but if we want them to survive their needs and challenges have to be considered when making decisions.
If small business is part of the foundation of Whistler, so too is affordable housing. No new affordable housing was produced in the last three years, for various reasons, but a couple of projects should produce actual beds in 2006 and construction may start on others. That’s promising, but we’re at the stage where we need results rather than promises. The Rainbow project was agreed to in principle a year ago, but details are still being ironed out. The athletes village could provide a great deal of affordable housing, but at the moment it is still a concept, there are questions of financing, and it is more than four years away from having an impact on Whistler’s housing needs.
The Barnfield lawsuit may also be considered a challenge to affordable housing.
If we accept that small businesses and affordable housing are two of the cornerstones Whistler was built upon then it is up to all of us – not just elected officials or leaders – to protect them. They are not building blocks that will be wiped out in one massive head-on assault, but they can be eroded, incrementally over time.
While there may be signs that suggest the end of the season is nigh, or that the foundations of Whistler are going to be tested, a new year also brings new opportunities. Here’s hoping for a healthy and prosperous New Year for all.