Opinion » Editorial

Is it a bridge too many?


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For much of the last year the idea that Whistler is on a path to diversify its offerings by adding in a greater cultural component has become accepted, even embraced.

Great fanfare met the announcement of the $30 million Audain Art Museum — and truly it is considered a bit of a coup for our ski town.

The sky-scraping crane can be seen even now moving against the backdrop of the mountains, as site preparations and building get under way.

This world-class art museum will house the Audain collection, which was a major exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2011 — all financed through the Audain Foundation for the Visual Arts.

I think there can be little doubt that there was also a collective sigh of relief that this amazing offering wasn't going to cost the taxpayer too much.

Perhaps that is part of the reason why the idea of Whistler contributing $500,000 toward a new multi-million dollar bridge proposed by the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre (SLCC), as part of a cultural stroll or district, is challenging. It's likely there are other reasons for the cool reception in the community, but more on that later.

As art and culture has continued its creep into our collective consciousness there has been talk about how to best physically link cultural offerings — this imaginary route that people will take to enjoy the offerings at the Whistler Museum and Library, Whistler Olympic Plaza (WOP), Millennium Place, the Audain Art Museum and the SLCC.

There is little doubt that such an attraction would draw visitors here, or perhaps entice those already here to stay an extra night to take it all in. Truly a tourist draw.

It reminds me of other "attractions" in B.C. we have all visited once in our lives and quickly offer up to visiting relatives hoping to get a glimpse of the "real" B.C.

These kinds of exhibits or facilities are appealing to the older traveller — and demographics tell us that the older traveller is getting more common and has more money.

According to the presentation made by the SLCC's Casey Vanden Heuval to council last week, cultural tourism travel in Canada equalled $8 billion, while sport tourism equaled $2 billion (2007).

For the first time in Canadian history, there are now more people aged 55 to 64 than there are aged 15 to 24. For a ski town those are sobering figures.

Here are some more from the same presentation:

• A total of $96 million has been spent in less than 15 years on constructing the Audain Museum, WOP, the SLCC ($33 million), the Whistler Museum and Library and Millennium Place, totalling over 116,000 sq. feet of cultural space;

• Business operations at the SLCC are now recovering 71.3 per cent of expenses. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York recovers 51 per cent, while the Royal BC Museum recovers 39 per cent;

• Globus tours is increasing the number of its bus tour guests to the SLCC by 60 per cent in 2014.

• If five per cent of independent travellers were inspired to stay one more night in Whistler it would result in an additional 5,000 room nights per summer. New spending in the resort from this group, when you combine average room rates and average per day spending, would total $700,000 to $1 million per summer.

Impressive reasons for Whistler to embrace the idea of supporting our cultural offerings, and the idea of a new bridge linking the Audain Museum and the SLCC.

The $5 million bridge is part of Phase III of the "Cultural Journey," which will also see $775,000 spent on kiosk expansion, and $200,000 spent on enhancements to the Great Hall, development of a forest walk and a contemporary exhibition. The majority of the funds for the Cultural journey come from various levels of government.

Phase II saw $3.8 million spent on at installations in the corridor, the pedestrian overpass in Squamish at Totem Hall and various other expenses.

Phase I saw $1 million plus spent on signage and kiosks along the Sea to Sky Highway.

There is no arguing that this investment has raised the profile of the local First Nations amongst residents and visitors alike. It has resulted in new bonds and partnerships in business, government and the community. And both the Squamish and Lil'wat are investing in the proposed bridge.

But one is still left wondering if there is this much cash to spend on signs etc. why there isn't more money to spend on improving day-to-day life, for say, our neighbours in Mt. Currie. Yes, the SLCC's youth ambassador program is a powerful tool, and yes having a place where the First Nations can share their story according to their traditions is long overdue.

But it would be interesting to ask residents in Mt. Currie, members of the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations, and even members of other First Nations across Canada if spending millions in taxpayer money on a pedestrian bridge in Whistler is a top priority for them.



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