Opinion » Maxed Out

Hope springs eternal

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On the other side of the country, rolling through some of the most stunning scenery imaginable, rich farmland, vast ocean panoramas, with Stompin' Tom's "Bud the Spud" roaring out of the sound system, I'm struck by the parallels — and lessons to be learned — between and by Prince Edward Island and Whistler. For peppered throughout this natural beauty is some of the tackiest tourist crapola I've ever seen.

The centre of gravity of tackiness is Green Gables. The site itself may or may not be horrible — wouldn't know, didn't go — but the sideshow that radiates out from it for kilometres would do any travelling carney show proud. Designed to appease tired children and bored adults, it draws each like moths to porch lights. "Oh sweet Jesus," says a voice in the car, "This could be where Whistler is headed."

And well it could be.

Whistler's been fortunate thus far. While we can boast distractions that veer toward gaudy and garish — I have my list, I'm sure you have yours but I'll decline to name names — most of what we offer tourists is centred around our natural beauty and steers them toward more physical engagement than, say, ferris wheels and freakshow waxworks. That having been said, my initial reaction to WB's Renaissance waterpark was, "Wow! Wonder where they'll build the ferris wheel?"

But as we pursue growth at any cost, surely there will be more and more pressure to slide toward tackiness. After all, you can only do so much with natural beauty and mountain culture, whatever that is. After that, you have to find a way to keep the sticky, bawling children and bored parents occupied while you pick their pockets and remind them of what a grand time they're having.

And while I'm still working on the mathematical correlation between the decline of mountain culture authenticity Tiny Town is experiencing and the rise of small, accessory dogs I see everywhere in the Village, one thing is abundantly clear: The growth Whistler has been experiencing and the insatiable appetite for more and more growth is cancerous; it's the single most threatening force we're facing and the one most likely to kill our golden goose.

In the Age of Outrage, fuelled by the relative anonymity of social media, everyone has their own theory of the greatest threat to Tiny Town's success. But all of them trace their lineage back to the issue of growth: how much is too much; what are the limits; is growth our saviour or downfall?

Oh, and none of them are going to be solved or eased by outrage. They're going to take hard work and hard choices and reasonable people are going to differ as to the best steps to take to solve them.

Our lack of sufficient employee housing steps back into the increased number of workerbees living in substandard conditions and paying far too much of their income for the pleasure. Their numbers step back into the growing number of jobs available year-round in our supercharged economy. That steps back into the success of local business and the desire for even more business. And that steps back into the increased number of visitors our successful programs designed to put heads in beds has wrought. All those ingredients concoct our soup of growth.

Gridlock on the highway — significant any day of the week at rush hours and unbearable on many weekends — walks a similar path. We've done everything possible, and some things we probably shouldn't have, to encourage all the traffic we complain about. Decisions made in good faith, and with horrible foresight, have additionally fuelled this problem by hamstringing us with an antiquated highway system designed for the traffic flow of the 1980s as opposed to the tens of thousands more vehicles bringing those visitors — not to mention the poor slobs who just want to traverse the main north-south highway out of Vancouver to points well beyond Whistler — to see what all the buzz is about. Working our way out of this is going to take a lot more than just controlling the flow of traffic at our bottlenecks during peak rush. And that's going to offend the head-in-the-sand, made-in-B.C. belief that all highways are evil.

Underlying all this, and likely fuelling both the Age of Outrage and the nascent culture wars on the horizon, is the chasm between those who believe more growth is the remedy for the ravages of growth and those who want to turn the clock back, stuff the genie back into the bottle and return to the halcyon days when Tiny Town was, indeed, tiny.

Since the oldest of us were here, we have paid homage to our limits to growth — all hail the deity Bed Unit Cap — and whistled past the graveyard of exactly what that means. What it clearly meant is what we've got: a housing market priced far beyond the means of all but a small slice of residents who still consider themselves part of the labour market; ever-growing swaths of dark, empty homes that are homes in name only and simply shrewd investments for their absentee owners; old-timers who are real-estate wealthy and cash poor; other old-timers being squeezed out of the hood because of a lack of wealth or necessary services; a growing divide between those who produce the magic that is Whistler and those who simply enjoy the fruits of their labours; and a growing number of people who only care how this town affects their wealth and will happily move on to the next opportunity when it fails to produce the desired return.

I am only marginally hopeful this ship we're all on is going to make it to a better port without sinking. I'm doubtful the next council or the one after that will make the very difficult decisions that will be necessary to rein in growth, make homes places to live again instead of entries on a balance sheet, undertake building — or encouraging the province to build — the infrastructure we need to deal with our current, let alone future, volume of traffic, and fuel the Whistler Dream, not what is currently a nightmare for far too many people we abuse to keep the whole thing afloat.

But it's that margin of hope, however slim, that makes me turn away from the Age of Outrage, often fuelled as it is by a woeful ignorance of decisions that were made in the past. It's that hope that keeps me involved instead of just sniping from the sidelines. It's that hope that makes me attend public meetings when I know I'm not going to get my own way because, well, no one gets their way when we tackle complex problems. It's a hope, decades old, that at least another generation of fresh-faced seekers will overcome the struggles everyone's faced and successfully plant roots in Tiny Town's shallow soil.

Hope springs eternal.

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