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Editorial

Two years from the vortex

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On July 24 last year Whistler council announced its priorities to the end of its present term, in November 2008.

“Council will be focusing the rest of their term on improving Whistler’s air quality and finalizing the operational planning for the 2010 Winter Games…,” a press release stated.

Those are worthy goals — perhaps not the priorities everyone would choose, but reasonable things to focus on. Whistler’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, despite our efforts to reduce them, and the 2010 Olympics and Paralympics will be a defining point in Whistler’s history, so we need to be ready. In fact, the Olympics are now the vortex for virtually all decisions in Whistler, sucking in everything from capital spending to schooling to the arts to career choices.

This vortex is two years away, and while we need to plan for 2010 Whistler also needs a plan to get through the next two years. Labour, housing for seasonal employees, service levels are some of the issues that need to be continuously monitored and addressed; they can’t wait for the 2010 solution.

And some of these areas are being addressed. The Whistler Chamber of Commerce has revamped the Spirit Program in the lead up to 2010 to help build a culture of service. The chamber has also hosted multiple Business Opportunities workshops and encouraged individual businesses to prepare their own plans for the next two years and through 2010.

Individually, businesses are also trying to adapt to one of the stark realities of the early 21 st century: there are more jobs than there are employees. Businesses have responded with increased wages, incentives and more flexible hours, but for many owners it’s still a struggle to provide the level of service expected of their business, and that visitors expect of Whistler.

One of the keys to a two-year plan would seem to be some temporary housing for seasonal employees. There will be lots of new housing for permanent and seasonal employees after the Games are over, but additional affordable accommodation is needed for the next two winters.

As Whistler-Blackcomb’s former human resources director Kirby Brown said following his company’s job fair in November, “Anecdotally, my comment to the community would be this: that no longer are there enough young folks out there on the planet willing to take the risk to come to Whistler to find a job and then hope to get housing.”

Tourism Whistler President Barrett Fisher was asked by a member of Whistler council last month what the municipality could do to help the marketing organization. Fisher said there were two things: the first was facilitating additional employee housing, which would help address the labour issue, which in turn should lead to better service in the resort. (The second was the front desk issue in strata-titled hotels.)

A task force has spent the last year working on finding additional housing for seasonal employees. The committee’s first effort was the H.O.M.E. matching program, an invitation to second-homeowners to rent one of their rooms to a Whistler employee, with local businesses, through the chamber and the Whistler Housing Authority, guaranteeing the rent and responsible for any damage caused by the renter. Unfortunately the program hasn’t produced even one bed.

A second initiative of the task force is to locate a temporary trailer camp in Whistler. Businesses would put up the money for the mobile units and rent them to their employees until the Olympics are over. Then the units would be removed.

The major obstacle to the plan is finding a location. The former highways works yard, opposite Alta Vista, was considered. However the new owners of the property, the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations, apparently have other plans.

A second site, north of B.C. Hydro’s Rainbow substation, has now been identified. It too is privately-owned property, but the owners — Steve Bayly and Nigel Woods — are open to the idea of locating the trailers on part of their land. They are proposing other parts of their property be used for a new and, expanded bus service centre, a new highways works yard and the relocation of Woods’s company, Coastal Mountain Excavations.

The proposal received initial support from five councillors last month, but Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden and Mayor Ken Melamed expressed concerns. They suggested the 15-year-old Official Community Plan be updated before the proposal is considered. Municipal staff said they won’t have time to re-evaluate the OCP until after the 2010 Olympics.

That doesn’t fit with the two-year plan Whistler needs. In fact, given the length of time it takes for a rezoning application to move through municipal hall, the only hope of having additional housing in place for next winter is if the community shows strong support for it over the next few weeks.

Council announced its priorities last July.

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