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Intrawest commits to employee housing projects



Intrawest plans to start construction of more than 200 employee beds this spring, 160 of which could be available for rent to Whistler-Blackcomb staff by next Christmas

Faced with a seasonal housing crunch last winter and with little improvement this season, the corporation’s development arm has revisited its capital commitments for this year and decided to dust off the old Whistler Mountain plans for an apartment-style employee housing complex behind the Twin Lakes area.

Doug Ogilvy, Intrawest Resort Development Group vice president, said the old plans have now been revised slightly and were due to go before the municipality’s design panel team Wednesday, Jan. 31.

The goal is to start construction on the building come spring. "The intent is to try and get people in there by December," said Ogilvy. "It will be tight, but that is what we would like to achieve."

The company came under fire last fall for not having made this housing project a priority.

Councillor Kristi Wells, who chairs the Whistler Housing Authority board, told council in September last year she was disappointed that Intrawest had not yet moved to construct the employee housing at its site off Alta Lake Road.

The property has been zoned for 46 apartments and about 160 beds with a development permit in place since before the Whistler and Blackcomb mountain merger in 1997.

Members of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce also expressed frustration last fall with the fact Intrawest had not moved on the project and was instead swallowing up housing in the valley for its employees, which in turn was placing further strain on small businesses.

The Whistler Housing Authority had offered to buy the plan and the property from Intrawest if the corporation was not going to develop the project itself.

But after revisiting the capital plans for 2001, the decision has been made to go ahead and build this year.

"We found last winter that things didn’t lighten up, as expected, after the Millennium passed and the situation was obviously very tough again this fall," said Ogilvy. "So we dusted off the plans, improved them a little, and took them back to design panel for another look."

Ogilvy said the 46 rental units will be about 750 square-feet in size and comprised of two bedrooms each. "They are really the same units the Whistler Mountain plans originally had – the same as the ones in Brio," he said.

Once complete, the complex will fall under the management of Whistler-Blackcomb's Kirby Brown, director of employee experience.

This spring the corporation will also start construction on a 32-unit employee townhouse project in Spring Creek, called Cedar Glen. Sixteen of the units will be made available to Whistler-Blackcomb employees. The other 16 will go to people on the Whistler Housing Authority waitlist.

Ogilvy said the townhomes will probably sell for about $100,000 for the smaller one-bedroom units, to a little over $200,000 for the larger three-bedroom units.

This project is slated for completion in the spring of 2002.

Intrawest will also now be including staff housing in its Four Seasons hotel development near the Chateau Whistler. Those revised plan were also due to go before the design panel last week.

"We have amended our rezoning application to include 16 employee units in the lower floors, which is about 66 beds," said Ogilvy.

"There was a real feeling in the community that we had a challenge and also, in discussing it with Four Seasons, we felt that operationally, having units in the building would help secure housing for a significant portion of their employees which would help with the long-term operation of the hotel," he said. "To manage a hotel like that, the retention of good staff is going to be critical. Having the housing base will help with that as well."

The Four Seasons development is slated to go to market next fall with a spring 2002 construction start.

Faced with the criticism last fall, Whistler-Blackcomb’s Dave Brownlie noted his company has had a history of commitment to employee housing. He said Whistler-Blackcomb had invested more than $20 million in housing that the company currently owns and operates, not including units that have been sold to valley employees.

He said the first employee housing built by the mountains was in 1988.

"Today we provide more than 1,000 beds, which is one for every three of our seasonal staff members. This is housing we own and provide for our staff," said Brownlie. "We probably provide most housing out of any employer in the valley by a long shot. In addition to that, we have built 70 employee townhouses that were eligible for purchase by employees. We have been committed and, we are committee into the future," noted Brownlie.