Features & Images » Feature Story

feature 344

comment
We the people Before the campaigning got into high gear, Pique Newsmagazine invited Whistlerites to discuss the future of their town. While many had fears, there was also a sense of optimism. By G.D. Maxwell In two weeks, eligible voters in Whistler will cast their ballot for mayor and council from a broad and bewildering cast of candidates. With only a short time to go before election day, it would be difficult to find anyone who can really claim to know where the various hopefuls stand on important issues. And while it’s encouraging to see a much higher interest in local politics than was evident in the last election, we can only hope for more clarification from the contestants on what they believe to be the key issues facing Whistler over the course of their hoped for term of office. Over a couple of evenings in late September, Pique invited about a dozen people to participate in round table discussions of what they thought were the important issues facing Whistler. They were chosen because one of us at the paper knew them or knew of them and thought they reflected the spirit of our town. They were young and old, men and women, well-known and unknown, and had lived here for periods of six weeks to more than 25 years. The only other criteria they met were they were not currently holding public office nor were they running in this election, after all, we’ll hear plenty from both of those groups as we come down to the wire. The other thing they all share is the one trait virtually all of us have in common. It is a quality mentioned at both round table sessions and endorsed by all the participants: They have all chosen to live in Whistler. It is at once a simple and simply profound statement. We all choose to live here. No one’s stuck in Whistler and very few adult people grew up here — or for that matter are growing up here. We’re here because this is the place we want to be, because we believe this is the single best place for us. That characteristic is certainly one of the things giving this town its unique flavour. Choices aside, and despite the fact everyone found much to praise about life in Whistler, there was surprising agreement on the key issues facing us in the foreseeable future. Not surprisingly, there was less agreement on how best to deal with those issues. But there was no lack of constructive ideas and spirited discussion. Round table participants included, alphabetically: Heather Beresford, RMOW Parks and Recreation; Paula Campbell, partner in adele-campbell gallery; Nick Davies, Lawyer; John Grills, Restaurateur; Ed Pitoniak, Staff VP of Idea and Product Acceleration for Intrawest; Joan Richoz, Librarian; Mary Anne Rolfe, Registered Clinical Counsellor; Dana Samu, Events Co-ordinator at Whistler Resort Association; Gordon Tomalty, former Whistler Councillor; Jim Tutsch, Entrepreneur; and Dave Williamson, Environmental Consultant. Because of the free flow of ideas and job related sensitivities expressed by some, not all of what is reported below will be attributed to the speaker or speakers. In many cases, this is impossible anyway since one person’s thought was often finished or expanded on by others. Growth and the OCP It is inevitable, whenever two or more Whistlerites gather, much time should be spent talking about growth, the Official Community Plan, and housing. The issues are woven together like sleeping snakes; it’s hard to tell where one ends and another begins. While most of the participants supported the development cap as outlined in the OCP, all were aware of the paradoxes inherent in their position. They wanted to see housing in the valley that could be afforded by people living here. They wanted to see sufficient rental housing for seasonal workers. They realized both of those desires would be harder, if not impossible, to accomplish with the building cap in place. Having moved to Pemberton to find affordable housing, Heather Beresford described the dilemma best, "I’m one of those people who want to get back in here. If the cap’s on, it’s more expensive; if it’s off, I lose the experience I moved here for." There was fear post-buildout Whistler would become another ski resort exclusively for the rich, with real estate prices having escalated to the point where only very wealthy people and mostly people living elsewhere could afford to buy in. "One thing that happens when real estate gets as pricey as we’re talking about is the beds get colder," Ed Pitoniak explained. That is to say, units in rental pools and rental accommodation in single family houses come out of the market because new owners are less willing to put their sizeable investments at risk and, by definition, have the wherewithal to forego the rental revenue. While covenants on much rental accommodation in the village and Benchlands would ensure tourist rooms remain on the market — "...after all, we did learn something from the problems Vail’s had," Gordon Tomalty injected — sky high housing prices may clearly result in the chilling of rental beds now occupied by locals. Even if those suites and bedrooms remain on the rental market, what new owners buying at inflated prices view as "reasonable" rents are likely to increase much faster than wages paid to potential renters. As usual with this issue, no one had any brilliant insight as to how best to strike the balance. Positive inducements in the form of property tax credits for affordable rental units in single family homes was mentioned as one constructive step. As things stand now, home owners adding suites to existing houses often face significant impost fees making them think twice about expanding that aspect of the rental pool. Many in the groups didn’t believe the building cap was a hard, fast limit to growth. And even those who strongly supported the cap believe reasonable exceptions should be considered for additional growth to accommodate worthy projects for seasonal employee housing and elder care housing. Gordon Tomalty expressed his belief that growth was inevitable and wondered how we would control future expansion. "Whistler needs a safety valve. We should incorporate the Callaghan Valley into the municipality, develop it as our bedroom community." And Nick Davies wondered whether we could really look at the issue of Whistler’s growth in isolation of the phenomenal growth occurring in the Lower Mainland. "Right now, we’re relatively rural, but 20 or 30 years from now, we may not be a rural community any more. The situation with Whistler may be analogous to the situation with Grouse and Cypress now, right on the edge of town." Housing Eventually, discussing growth and the limits to growth led to considering what kind of development was desirable between now and buildout. Affordable housing turned out to be a contentious topic. For starters there really wasn’t any consensus on what was meant by the term. Jim Tutsch suggested, "...there are really two types of affordable housing: employee housing and affordable housing, affordable like Millar’s Pond and employee like dormitory style housing." While this proved to be a useful framework for exploring related issues, there was a lot of disagreement about the relative merits of each. Whether we build it or not, they will come, was a view expressed by several round table participants. "People are going to keep coming here. If we don’t build accommodation for the young people coming to work as lifties and busers, they’re going to come anyway. The only way to relieve the pressure is to build rental accommodation," opined Nick Davies. There was strong support for the belief the community has to find a way to build apartment or dormitory style housing for seasonal workers. The numbers of such workers needed today, and more importantly, the number projected to be needed at buildout — as many as 10,000 to 12,000 — simply aren’t being well housed now and face worse quality housing in the future. There was genuine concern expressed over the quality of life people enjoy living six and seven in a space more suited for four. Perhaps less altruistically, many doubted employees living in such conditions could provide the quality of service expected by destination tourists at a first class ski resort, or would have any stake or sense of belonging to the community and would, eventually, open more doors to greater union inroads. While the idea of big box dorms or apartments was unsettling to some, no one argued strongly that the current approach — building relatively few low-density housing projects for purchase, thereby freeing up rental space occupied by those lucky enough to win a lottery and move into their own dwelling — had any real chance of meeting the growing need for rental space. In addition to not meeting the need, Dave Williamson expressed legitimate environmental and planning concerns to the current approach. "With a (current) cap on affordable housing, 800 or whatever, you can piecemeal it out in these undersized lots all over the valley floor and eat up more and more and more of our green space... or you can take it and you can throw 800 bed units into a large complex down in Function Junction, for example... low-end housing that’s affordable for people making nine bucks an hour..." The "where" you build such a project posed at least as much difficulty as how to finance it or whether such big box projects should be allowed in Whistler. While Function was the only location mentioned that couldn’t be immediately dismissed for one insurmountable reason or another, land was clearly recognized as a stumbling block to any large affordable project, whether for seasonal employees, seniors or paycheque locals. One point of agreement was that our municipal government needed to more aggressively pursue concessions on Crown land with the province. Many small towns in British Columbia owe the presence of their chief amenities to free or inexpensive Crown land. In the lean, mean ’90s, the province’s policy has changed to selling land at its market value. The problem of such a policy for Whistler is obvious; we suffer for our success. No mountain town of 6,500 in B.C. has land so valuable as our mountain town. But, our very success in generating tourist revenue directly benefits the provincial coffers in a substantial way. This "contribution" is not being valued by Victoria and several participants thought it was our local government’s duty to press that point to advantage. In any debate about what to build and where to build it, it doesn’t take long for someone to raise the issue of NIMBYism — a woefully ugly acronym. It seems as we draw closer to buildout, our community becomes increasingly polarized and the lines of distinction too often come down to "us" and "them." Dana Samu was blunt, "I want to speak to the point about ‘them’ and how nobody wants ‘them.’ WE ARE THEM! To a certain degree, all of us have played that role. The way we treat seasonal employees, the facilities we build for them, determines the kind of people we get. The worse the conditions are, the less connection between employees and the town. They’re just here to take what they can get. They’re not going to want to stay here and raise a family or have a stake." Amenities Having a stake meant a lot of different things to our panelists. While it’s almost fantastic to think of poverty and disenfranchisement in our resort playground, many people brought up points relating directly to financial and cultural poverty and the lack of community amenities suitable for large portions of our population. "A lot of my concerns about growth are social issues," librarian Joan Richoz said. "I see a lot of people in the library, they’re here because they have no other place to go and it’s free. We had the highest number of newest members for a public library association last year and almost the lowest per capita support from the municipality. And I see it with all sorts of community and social services. There’s just not enough importance given to the community, the people who are living here." Because of the clients she sees in a professional capacity, this concern was paramount with Mary Anne Rolfe. "I see lots of stress leave and burn-out, people running from job to job, people with stress in their marriage because they don’t really have any time for their partner, lots of cases of working poor. I can’t even get subsidized bus passes for people who need them. There’s an attitude here of how could anybody possibly be poor, or distressed, or in need. The attitude is, if you live in Whistler, maybe you should move as opposed to asking for something." That unique, shared attribute mentioned earlier — we’ve all chosen to live here — means we’re also more alone here. Very few valley residents enjoy a wide social net of familial support and life long friends. A scarcity of daycare was a shared concern of many of the women and some of the men in our groups. And because of the transient nature of much of our population, lasting friendships in Whistler are hard to find, harder to keep. Many participants voiced Paula Campbell’s wish for, "...a community centre, a meeting centre kind of place where people can get together. And a cultural facility. We need to take care of the community." This sense — that the community hasn’t been taken care of as well as the resort has — was hard to pin down and harder still to reach agreement on. The laundry list of amenities on our participants’ wish list included some form of senior housing so our ageing residents could stay in the valley they’ve called home for many years, a youth centre, a permanent library, expanded recreational facilities and a return of free-time parking meters and a simpler way of life they symbolize. "The muni really screwed that one up," was both the unanimous and anonymous sentiment. With the exception of a general hatred of the new electronic parking meters and a puzzled wonderment at how bus schedules could be devised and approved that brought employees to work in the village at five minutes after the hour, curiously absent was much discussion of parking and transportation. As an issue, the TAG study has pretty well deflected transportation from consideration. As John Grills summed it up, "I think we just spent $350,000 on a study about transportation, so let’s see what that has to say. I mean, I kinda wonder why we’re doing it now. All the roads are in place, the village and all this is in place. Now we’re going to do a transportation study?" In the end, it was amazing that over the course of almost six hours, not one of the panelists could have been described as anything but upbeat about our town and its potential for the future. "It’s hard to convince me it’s hard or bad to live here. The things we do need and are still on the list are being thought out in the last big piece of public land. If there’s something you want to be involved in, you just have to join in, get out there and help push," was John Grills’ take on the future. Being the newcomer to town, Ed Pitoniak saw our current state in analogous terms. "I’m struck by the extent this community has taken care of itself. There’s a level of vitality you rarely find in communities this small. If you look at mountain towns 100 years ago and at which have thrived and died, there are interesting parallels. Aspen was based on silver; as long as silver thrived, Aspen thrived. Whistler has gotten to the point where it has dug a lot of mines. All the cranes around here represent the mines and I don’t know if everybody in this town is as aware as they need to be about the incredibly big wager Whistler has made on itself right now." We may not agree on all the issues or all the solutions, but there’s a palpable feeling around town these days the outcome of that wager may well become apparent within the course of next few sitting councils.

Add a comment