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Head of BC Chamber of Commerce talks tourism in Whistler and Pemberton

Val Litwin, former Whistler Chamber CEO, keeping corridor interests top of mind in provincial role

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A familiar face addressed dozens of local business leaders this week at the Whistler Chamber of Commerce’s latest Power Lunch.

Val Litwin, head of the BC Chamber of Commerce, a role he took on in 2016 after serving as CEO of Whistler’s Chamber for three years, was back in the resort on Wednesday, March 21 to discuss how he is working for Whistler’s interests as leader of the province’s largest business network. Then, the following day, he traveled 30 minutes down the highway for a breakfast with Pemberton Chamber of Commerce members.

“We have the unique advantage of having a leader with a local scope who understands the inner workings of the provincial economy,” said current Whistler Chamber of Commerce CEO Melissa Pace, before bringing Litwin to the podium at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. “He really keeps us close to his heart, and I’ve got a quick dial to his cellphone anytime I need it.”

In a wide-ranging conversation, Litwin and Dan Baxter, the BC Chamber’s director of policy development, government and stakeholder relations, fielded questions from the Whistler audience, addressing a number of topics relevant to the resort.

At top of mind for local business leaders was the resort’s ongoing labour shortage, an issue affecting communities across B.C. that Litwin said is “really driving our advocacy now.”

Baxter said a crux of that effort has been driving home to Ottawa how important the federal Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program is to communities such as Whistler, where businesses rely heavily on the supply of international workers. Between 2013 and 2015, the number of TFWs coming to Canada dropped from 163,000 to just over 90,000, due in part to the economic downturn and changes introduced by the then-Conservative government meant to ensure businesses were only using the program to fill job vacancies after qualified Canadians couldn’t be found.

“From a chamber point of view, it’s not an either-or (between TFWs and domestic hires). It’s a tool in the toolkit that helps businesses be successful,” Baxter said. “For us, it’s trying to make sure, where businesses need that support, that they get that supplement to help them grow their business.”

There were fears around the NDP’s real-estate speculation tax, proposed in last month’s provincial budget, and the impact it could have on Whistler’s housing market. Focused on vacant homes, the tax would be two per cent of the assessed value of properties in 2019.

Baxter said there isn’t enough detail yet on how the tax will be administered to form an official position at the chamber.

“No one really knows what the speculative tax is right now—it’s nebulous,” he said. “There is a lot of scepticism and concern that there will be unintended consequences from introducing this tax at this time.”

Discussions also touched on B.C.’s minimum wage, which is scheduled to increase to $12.65 on June 1, before climbing to $13.85 in 2019, $14.60 in 2020, and $15.20 in 2021. While supportive of the raise, Litwin said the pace of the planned increases “can’t short-circuit the economy.” Baxter echoed that sentiment, saying he’d like to see wage increases tied to a more predictable bellwether, such as the consumer price index.

“This is a bread-and-butter issue for our network,” he said. “Our members are concerned about those massive jumps and the politics of minimum wage (with provincial governments competing to have the highest minimum wage). It’s that kind of unpredictability that really kills business.”

After Victoria announced that B.C.’s Family Day would be rescheduled in 2019—despite outcry from provincial tourism leaders—one audience member questioned whether the NDP government understands the true value of an industry that generated $15.7 billion in revenue in the province in 2015.

“I think almost every minister is still learning what the economic opportunities are within their portfolio,” Litwin said. “My hope is they are taking the time to listen to good stories and data from our members.”

Litwin also mentioned a new tool at the BC Chamber designed to provide a wider scope of input from B.C.’s business community to the provincial government. MindReader is a cloud-based platform that will allow the chamber’s more than 36,000 members to provide feedback in real time on policies and trends as they develop. Victoria has even paid to administer four surveys a year to members.

“It’s going to give you an unparalleled voice with government,” Litwin said. Learn more at bcmindreader.com.

He shared a similar message at the Pemberton Chamber event the following day.

Over a dozen people—including local MLA Jordan Sturdy—attended the event, which took place at Sturdy’s North Arm Farm, over breakfast.

Litwin opened the meeting by discussing the Chamber’s efforts to better understand its members’ interests through MindReader, and also congratulated Graham Turner, president of the Pemberton & District Chamber of Commerce, for his work advocating for Pemberton’s business community.

"You've got a strong leader here,” said Litwin. “Not all chambers are created equal. You've got someone who understands what the role entails and has the passion and drive to get it done.”

Then Litwin turned the tables, asking the group to articulate their concerns, which focused on the newly proposed payroll and speculation taxes, the need for affordable childcare, and improved transportation options.

For Turner, the breakfast, which was the first of its kind, was a good opportunity to highlight the needs of Pemberton’s business sector.

"I think everyone was here talking Pemberton, which I thought was really exciting. You wouldn't have got that same conversation in Whistler, so we were really appreciative of Val to come up and make that happen," he said.

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