Opinion » Editorial

International campus was never one for the books



In the end, the Whistler International Campus proposal failed on three fronts: It could not provide, or be, a community amenity worth granting it close to 3,000 "bed units;" it could not overcome the threat it posed to sensitive wetlands; and it could not escape the fact that it wasn't actually a university.

There is little doubt that the public face of the project, Dr. Doug Player, was a passionate believer in the proposal, and it is clear that his intention was to shepherd the growth of an international campus that would provide diversity and opportunity to Whistler.

But that was never going to be enough.

Signing letters of intent with post secondary institutions could not bestow on WIC university status and without that it really had the appearance of being, as Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden bluntly stated at the council meeting on Tuesday night, Dec. 3, a "large commercial development."

And let's define large: The WIC proposal was two times greater than the gross floor area of the Cheakamus Crossing neighbourhood, the requested number of bed units, 2,924, is close that allotted to the whole of the original Whistler Village.

In an interesting mathematical extrapolation, Councillor Jayson Faulkner argued that granting the rezoning application was in essence the same as giving the developers between $40 and $90 million dollars in benefit, as each bed unit could be considered to be worth between $15,000 and $28,000.

For Faulkner the development was not worth that much to Whistler.

The university would also draw a young transient crowd, and as we have heard through the Economic Partnership Initiative committee these residents tend to spend only about $70 a day, as compared to a destination tourist who spends four times that much.

Faulkner pointed out that if Whistler is to in essence give away up to $90 million then there should be an expectation that it is going to grow the core business of the resort, which is still tourism.

There can be no doubt that Whistler wants to pursue educational opportunities but in turning down the rezoning for WIC council is staying the course on making the pursuit of this an value-added offering, not a substitute for the core business model.

To that end, This week CAO Mike Furey confirmed that an announcement is forthcoming about what the next steps will be in pursuing this, and with which institutions.

It could be argued that in times of economic uncertainty diversifying creates a safety net for communities, but the WIC proposal by offering itself up as a campus where others would do business failed to convince that the benefit of taking on the venture outweighed the risk to the community.

There was always the hope that the campus would be granted university status in the coming years. But that, too, presented problems, as university lands, buildings and associated operations are exempt from tax.

This could have left Whistler taxpayers on the hook for all municipal services for the close to 3,000 people on campus.

The staff report on the rezoning was thorough, and it was refreshing to hear from each councillor on their reasons for voting against the application — too often residents simply get a unanimous vote without any public reasoning from council members.

This fulfills a commitment made by Wilhelm-Morden during her election campaign to get the WIC proposal into municipal hall for review.

Some form of a development proposal on these lands has been circulating in the resort since 2001 when an application was put forward for a mixed-use resident employee community. John Zen, who has owned the land since 1979, put forward the proposal after discussions with the Whistler Housing Authority and the RMOW.

It seems clear, however, that consecutive Whistler councils had little appetite to allow building on the site. Indeed in May of 2001 council began a process to downzone a portion of the property so it could never be developed.

Looking back over the history of the property, which is currently zoned for four homes, it is clear that the land owner has worked with the municipal staff and council, but rather than just making a clear decision about what could be developed it looks like the goal posts kept changing — change that came with hefty costs for the developer.

This council has said it is open for business. And it has made a clear reasoned argument why WIC's proposal doesn't work.

So perhaps one of the great take aways from this important decision is that council and staff have a responsibility to be clear with developers about what the future of the community looks like from their perspective, so that scarce funds and opportunities are not wasted as we move toward continued success.