By Loreth Beswetherick It’s by no means scientific but it did help the Whistler Chamber of Commerce take an immediate temperature reading on the extent of the employee shortage in the valley this season. And the mercury was rising. Almost 200 businesses who responded to a chamber survey sent to determine the extent of the ‘employee crisis’ indicated they have a total 421 jobs still vacant. And the blame, they say, lies with the lack of short-term rental accommodation. The chamber faxed out 550 questionnaires on Friday, Jan. 28 asking members how many positions they were still looking to fill. Chamber president Bob Adams said over that weekend 142 surveys were immediately returned. The other returns trickled in later. The chamber does not have figures to compare the numbers with last year but Adams said the prompt response rate itself shows members are in trouble. "To have so many responses to a fax survey indicates to us there is a problem," said Adams. "Usually with these surveys a three or five per cent (return) rate is considered pretty good." The chamber feels many of the businesses who did not return questionnaires are likely too small to need staff or they could be summer based operations. Adams said the survey was initiated to try and get a quick reading on the employee situation. "I had an awful lot of people talking to me about being short-staffed and owners having to work horrendous hours," said Adams. "Some of the smaller business owners have been working 14 or 16 hour days on the line to keep their businesses running. I felt there was an issue there and we decided to try and measure it quickly." Housing authority figures show the resort generally provides work for about 11,000 to 12,000 employees and that includes staff living in both Pemberton and Squamish. "If you look at it in terms of the percentage, 500 out of 12,000 isn’t a lot but it is the 500 people who would make things work a lot easier for the small businesses," said Adams. Respondents attributed the lack of available staff to a dearth of short-term housing. "People indicated in hand-written notes on the bottom of their responses that they perceive the problem mainly to be the supply of short-term housing for temporary employees... people who come in and work for three months or so," said Adams. "I feel, very strongly, that the short-term housing situation has to improve." Some members feel one project that could help is a 160-bed rental housing complex planned by Intrawest for land near Twin Lakes. Whistler Mountain received both zoning and a development permit in 1996 for the apartment project off Alta Lake Road but nothing has happened since the company’s merger with Blackcomb. Whistler Housing Authority general manager Rick Staehli said Intrawest put the project on hold after an internal staff survey last year indicated rental accommodation in that particular location was not attractive to mountain employees at the time. "I think things may have changed dramatically since then," said Staehli. The housing authority then approached Intrawest with an offer to purchase the property and the plans and develop it themselves. "They haven’t closed the door on that yet," said Staehli. "I was under the impression they were looking favourably at doing that in the year 2000 but then, of course, as winter came along with all the associated shortages, they may now very well want to develop it themselves." Intrawest’s Doug Ogilvy confirms this. The corporation will not be selling to the housing authority but, given the development projects on Intrawest’s plate right now, nothing will likely happen on the site in the near future. "As an organization we talked about it. We looked at what our long-term housing requirements were going to be and the feeling was we definitely need some more rental housing for our operations group," said Ogilvy. "While we did have those discussions with the housing authority, the plan is now for Whistler-Blackcomb to develop it themselves at some point. We decided we better hang on to this because definitely, with the housing situation the way it is, at some point we are going to want to build some more." Although the site is zoned for rental housing and ready to go, Ogilvy said it will not be fast-tracked in view of the housing crunch this year. Intrawest’s next resident housing project will be 40 townhouse units in Spring Creek that will go on sale to valley employees. "With all the stuff on our books it’s going to be a very busy year as it is," said Ogilvy.