Opinion » Editorial

Not the American Dream


"Vail was a product of pure faith in a sport that was only beginning to bloom, a resort built within a laissez-faire political environment where the government didn't care what developers did. Whistler Village, coming 15 years later, was Vail's child – and, like so many children, its opposite, built when growth in the skiing market was a sure thing, constructed by an extraordinary partnership in which the government itself was the developer and nothing was left to chance."

And that’s pretty much the theme throughout Hal Clifford’s feature in the December issue of SKI Magazine comparing the development of Vail and Whistler. Vail was the vision of Pete Seibert, a World War II hero, a risk taker and someone who set out to tame a piece of the Wild West. In Whistler, the provincial government put a freeze on land development and then created the Resort Municipality of Whistler, "the government equivalent of a platypus, it was a public-private hybrid that had as its goal the creation and development of Whistler Village on what was then the local dump."

It’s natural to compare Whistler and Vail, as anyone who has been to the two resort towns has done. And as arguably the two most successful ski resorts in North America, each built where no previous town existed, a comparison of their developments is also to be expected. But some of the stereotype images Clifford’s story paints of "us and them" make John Wayne movie characters look multi-dimensional.

Indeed, much of the story seems to follow an old Hollywood view of America and the weird systems the rest of world follows. A description of the phase I and II covenants (actually he refers to them as phase II and III) on village condos almost sounds Stalinesque: "…condominium owners may not reside in their units for more than eight weeks annually, and for the rest of each year must hand their property over for rental to tourists."

Everyone knows central planning was and continues to be a huge part of Whistler. But while Vail’s origins under Seibert are relatively straightforward, Clifford doesn’t delve into why the provincial government imposed a land freeze in Whistler in the early ’70s and created a new form of municipal government. He also doesn’t look at what would have happened had the whole valley been left to private enterprise.

For the most part all this is unimportant, to visitors and residents. Clifford chose a theme for his feature and followed it to the end: Vail is one thing and Whistler is the opposite.

"The differences between Vail and Whistler were as simple as this: At Vail, Seibert and his cohorts saw a chance to make something happen in the open spaces of the American West, where the myth of Manifest Destiny and the power of property rights reigned supreme. The Gore Creek and Eagle River valleys were full of potential-and risk. At Whistler, everybody knew by 1976 exactly what was going to happen, because the government told them."

Grossly oversimplified as it is, it still makes for interesting reading.

But the biggest fault with Clifford’s story – aside from continually referring to the Whistler Valley as the Fraser Valley – is in failing to put a face on Whistler. The people who had faith and vision and entrepreneurial skills – all the things Pete Seibert had – and hung in through the labour problems, the natural disasters and the devastating recession of the early ’80s are given short shrift. Clifford’s story perpetuates the myth that Whistler was born with a golden spoon between its teeth and a pipeline direct to federal and provincial coffers. It ignores the tremendous efforts and sacrifices by individuals to make this community survive and then flourish, when so many had abandoned the place as a failed experiment.

Many of those people continue to live in Whistler and influence the community.