Love it or hate it, Ironman Canada is returning to Whistler for each of the next three years.
On July 28, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), Tourism Whistler and Ironman announced in a joint press release that the event has been renewed through 2020.
"It's such an important event for us," Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said the day after the 2017 race.
"People forget just how empty and quiet summers were in Whistler until relatively recently, and it fits so well with what we do: we host large events, we're all about sports and healthy activity, and it's a natural fit."
Not everyone agrees.
When Pique posted news of the event's renewal to its Facebook page on July 28, the majority of the 130-plus comments were opposed to the news, with only a handful voicing their support.
"I guess my response to that is that everybody is certainly entitled to their own opinion, and for those that have negative comments, I would encourage them to come out and see the event," said Keats McGonigal, senior regional director for Ironman. "There were some of our elected officials who I've sat with in meetings who were very negative about the event, and when you talk to them on a personal level they haven't even come and seen the event, so for the people that haven't even given us a shot, I would say in the future come out and give us a shot, and come see the emotions that go through the athletes as they're accomplishing their dreams, and see what the event is all about."
CYCLING ROUTE YET TO BE DETERMINED
The renewal comes after both the Village of Pemberton (VOP) and Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) voted not to support it in recent weeks, citing overwhelming safety concerns on the Pemberton Meadows Road.
The RMOW decision to renew was made in-camera, meaning Wilhelm-Morden wasn't able to say if it was unanimous or not.
The cycling route for 2018 to 2020 is still under discussion.
"I think they've got some questions and some issues that we need to address, but like we have from the beginning, we'll work through the major agencies to include the Ministry of Transportation, the RMOW, SLRD, VOP, to come up with a solution that hopefully works with everybody," McGonigal said.
"I would suspect that the course that we have for the bike will change in some way, what that looks like is still to be determined... hopefully here in the next few weeks and months we'll start looking towards 2018."
In an emailed statement, VOP Chief Administrative Officer Nikki Gilmore said the Pemberton leg went well this year from a logistical standpoint.
"Discussions will be taking place over the next few months regarding the route," she said, adding that the VOP will work with all its partners to find route alternatives and reduce the impact of the event.
"We look forward to sharing the results of these discussions as they progress," she said.
Just up the road from Pemberton, the Lil'wat Nation hasn't voted one way or the other on supporting Ironman, but the size and scale of such events are indicative of what embracing tourism would mean for the Nation, said Chief Administrative Officer Ernest Armann.
"I think one of the things that this area needs to really look at is, is it ready for tourism, is it really something they want to do, and I think that work needs to be done and it needs to be done soon," Armann said. "I think this area really needs to understand if you want to go into tourism this is what it's going to be."
With the renewal of Ironman, Armann added he sees it as an opportunity for the Lil'wat Nation and its young people.
"I think there's a cross-cultural awareness opportunity here for Lil'wat, and really I think we need to tie in to some of the inspiration that they can provide, and see if there's any kind of opportunities that we can have for our youth," he said.
TRACKING THE NUMBERS
A press release announcing the renewal said Ironman has generated about $42 million in economic activity since its first year in Whistler in 2013.
The number comes from a 2013 Economic Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted by event producers, Tourism Whistler and the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance.
The EIA found that the event generated $8.4 million in local economic activity that year — the $42 million figure is assuming each year since, including 2017, generated the same amount (the RMOW said it wouldn't share the full EIA as some event data is provided in confidence).
Another EIA is planned for this year, though the results won't be made public for some time.
Ironman has also contributed more than $200,000 to charities and non-profits in Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton.
In terms of room nights, Ironman weekend (Wednesday through Monday) was pacing three per cent behind last year's event, but slightly ahead of two years ago, according to Tourism Whistler.
"While pacing slightly behind, week-over-week pickup has been gaining strength, with room nights growing between four per cent to nine per cent per day in the last week before the event," said communications manager Patricia Westerholm. "While we won't have final results until later in August, the pace indicates that room nights should be similar to 2016 levels."
The RMOW has provided $250,000 in Resort Municipality Initiative funds to the event each year, and in the new contract has committed up to $280,000 of RMI funds annually, used to cover the annual fee, as well as offsetting the cost of traffic services and the provision of other municipal services like street sweeping, village and park operations, electrical services, and waste and wildlife management.
The RMOW's investment only covers a small portion of Ironman's total production costs, an RMOW spokesperson said.
While the new contract wasn't shared with Pique, the RMOW indicated that it includes enhanced waste and wildlife requirements, enhanced opportunity for local business involvement in the Ironman Vendor Village, risk protection in the event of unfavourable exchange rates and reduced responsibilities for providing exclusive use of certain venues.
NOT EVERYONE REAPS THE BENEFITS
While local stakeholders like the Whistler Chamber of Commerce (COC), the Hotel Association of Whistler, the Restaurant Association of Whistler, Whistler Blackcomb and Whistler Sport Legacies support the event, not everyone sees the benefits.
Last September, Pique published a story featuring several local businesses upset with road closures associated with events like Ironman.
Businesses in Function Junction, or those that rely on the highway to conduct tours, lose money on the day of the event.
Keenan Moses of Whistler Eco Tours said his business lost about $5,000 in revenue this year, not counting the wages he paid to employees who were out a day of work.
"It really bothers me, because I love the event, I watched a lot of it, I love the athletes... the whole thing is pretty amazing, it's well run and all that," he said. "The bottom line is the highway closure. It's completely unacceptable.
"If we can keep a lane open, fantastic, I have no problems. If we can maybe even move it to the offseason, I have no problems, but other than that, I have a problem with it, because I lose revenue."
Being a summer business, operators like Moses really only have seven weekends to make their money, "and when you take a Sunday away on one of those weekends, you're down to six Sundays, basically, to make hay, and I just can't afford to keep doing that."
While the big organizations support Ironman, Moses said he never heard anything from the COC or TW — even though he's a member of both — and a letter he sent to the RMOW went unacknowledged.
"It sounds like they don't want to hear us small business guys. I think the big guys are making money and they're happy and that's about it," he said. "I guess we're kinda being ignored, is the bottom line."
Wilhelm-Morden acknowledged the challenges faced by some businesses and individuals, but said the positives of Ironman outweigh the negatives.
"Overall the impact is so significant, that someone may have had a down day (on race day), but (resort-wide), their days of businesses this summer are up compared to where they were five years ago, I have no doubt about that," she said.
"And Ironman has worked really hard this year, and they certainly will next year as well, to get the road and sections of the road open as quickly as possible."