By Bob Barnett Twenty years ago Whistler’s first Official Community Plan was prepared, with the emphasis on developing a central, compact village at the base of Whistler Mountain’s Olympic Run. The site, then a garbage dump, was envisioned as the basis for a tourism industry. Now, after three straight years of number one ratings in ski magazines, it’s safe to say Whistler’s tourism efforts have been successful. The summer of 1996 sees the beginning of the last major phase of commercial development in the Whistler Village, development aimed primarily at increasing tourism. It will take at least 18 months before all construction projects in the village and Village North are completed, and even when those are done there may still be major projects at the Whistler Racquet and Golf Resort and Whistler Creek. But if the current enthusiasm for limiting development remains, within the next year or two the local economy will be changing, from a growth economy to what forecasters hope will be a sustainable economy. The question then becomes, is tourism enough or does Whistler need to put more emphasis on a other industries? "If you accept that construction will begin to wind down in 18 months, and that tourism is the base of the economy, and that the resort is not as maxed out as some would have you believe, we may find that the economy is not as strong as it appears now," says Nicholas Davies. Davies chairs a Chamber of Commerce committee that has been looking at diversifying Whistler’s economy. His own feeling is that diversifying the economy in a resort town "adds to the culture of the community." "We can attract people to this town because of the lifestyle it offers," he says. Davies says computer software researchers and developers and manufacturers of high-tech outdoor equipment are the kinds of companies Whistler could and should be attracting. "My gut feeling is we do have the skilled people in this town for those industries. It’s almost analogous to living in a university town." Quantum Technologies in Function Junction is an example of the kind of firm Davies is talking about. The 15-year-old company manufactures scientific instruments for extremely low-temperature refrigerator systems, used with super-conductors. Two years ago company founder Calvin Winter moved the firm’s design and administration offices to Whistler after a partner suggested the location in jest. "It was a personal choice to come to Whistler, it has a good school for the kids and lots of amenities," says Winter. Since 80 per cent of Quantum’s customers are overseas it doesn’t matter to them whether the company is based in Whistler or its old location in Surrey. "When our customers did come to see us they usually took an extra weekend to visit Whistler anyway," he says. Winter is also on the chamber committee looking at economic diversification and is "very in favour of encouraging diversification." "I don’t believe its necessary to provide direct incentives (to attract high-tech companies to Whistler), even passive incentives help." Although every municipality and city in the country would like to attract high-tech industries, Winter says even if the Chamber prepared information packages and issued a statement outlining its objectives it could help attract firms to Whistler. "As far as the philosophy of economic diversification goes, I think a lot of people are riding the real estate boom, which is cyclical," Winter says. "A more diversified economy tends to soften the blow of the downs in the cycle. If people have less disposable income, it’s easy to cut out vacations." Winter says another way to attract high-tech firms is to try the incubator approach: setting up space for high-tech offices. But that eventually leads back to the fundamental Whistler question: how big does Whistler want to grow? If the community sets out to attract a second industry it also means bringing more residents to the valley. And given the current sentiment for limiting growth and the problems Whistler has with housing existing residents, are we ready to get into that? Whistler may already be a bit schizophrenic in its approach to industry. Our tourism-based economy is dependent on a supply of public beds. At the same time we are trying to build a community of full-time families and residents. And on top of that there is a ceiling on development, although there are provisions to go beyond the ceiling for employee/resident housing. One planner pinpointed the situation on a graph: when the steep growth curve meets the flat line representing the bed unit ceiling there will be a crash. And once that point is reached Whistler will begin to see if has the right mix of public beds, employee beds and commercial space. Some people are already predicting a period of "adjustment" in the retail sector in the next year. Some economists would say the solution is to maintain growth beyond the self imposed development ceiling. There is already pressure from some quarters to do that. "If we don’t start looking horizontally rather than vertically we’re going to keep pushing the (development) ceiling up," says Anne Popma, president of the Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts, summing up the situation. In 1993 the Whistler Centre sponsored the Whistler Symposium. The theme of the symposium was Beyond #1 Ski Resort: Where do we go from here? The summary report emphasized the need to "maintain the founders’ vision of Whistler as an international tourism destination," but also pointed out that "Whistler has a fragile resort economy, and that we need to focus on economic diversification throughout the year. The changing global economy, global warming and a levelling off of the skier population will all impact the ski industry. The mountains will likely represent a smaller percentage of (local) employment in the years ahead, as small businesses and cottage industries increase in numbers, and as tele-commuters with their own businesses generate income from outside the corridor. At the same time, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are a resort community, and that visitor expenditures remain the engine driving our economic success. While we should strive to diversify, we should continue building upon our strengths." Popma says the findings of the three year old symposium still hold true. "Perhaps more true as we reach buildout." "If growth is the only thing we know, then we tend to continue it," Popma adds. "It’s a tough one. So much of the economy knows growth." More than 300 people participated in the symposium and helped identify opportunities for economic diversification. The number one area identified was education, with arts and culture, environmental education and tourism/hospitality/culinary arts all being specifically identified under the education umbrella. The second major industry identified was high-tech industries. "Even as tourism demographics change, people are looking for more diverse activities," Popma says. Arts and culture hold potential for becoming part of a second industry, but they also cost money. Popma adds: "There’s a debate over what we should look like; are we in the entertainment business or are we a place where people can forward their careers?" Popma believes a theatre can be a strategic tool for diversifying culture. "It’s not an end, it’s just a vehicle for encouraging the artistic, cultural community." It can also complement the tourism industry. Setting aside for a moment the issue of how much development should be allowed in the valley, most people agree with the philosophy of diversifying the economy; the question is how much effort needs to be placed on it and when. Whistler council decided last fall that it was too busy trying to manage growth and the economy was going so well that it didn’t need to put any effort into a second industry at that time. That decision may have been influenced by the Community and Resort Monitoring Program, which, based on its municipal census, concluded that the economy is becoming more diversified. But one of the problems Davies’ committee has had is finding hard numbers on the local economy. How big a factor will buildout be for the construction industry, for example, given that so many of the large construction jobs go to out of town firms? And in some cases, such as Quantum Technologies, diversification just happens because Whistler is an attractive town. But at some point the community has to start asking questions about whether there needs to be some direction to diversifying the economy, how far Whistler wants to go and what it will mean for the quality of life in the valley. Whistler today is the product of a decision 20 years ago to concentrate on building a tourism industry; what can be done if we make a conscious decision to concentrate on another industry?