Back in another lifetime, a large Canadian bank hired me as a strategic planner in their international division. One of the first things I did was comb through the division's loan portfolio. You see, bankers pride themselves on being deal doers. A good deal comes their way, they do it. Another good deal comes their way, they do it too. In fact, the thing bankers hate more than paying interest on your money or lowering the fees they charge you is passing up a good deal.
Problem is, when you focus on the good deal in front of you, you lose sight — assuming you ever had it to begin with — of what all the deals you've done look like in aggregate.
Needless to say even the folks at the top were more than a little surprised when they found out they had an overall portfolio that was about as well balanced as a three-legged elephant on a tightrope. Their first response was to shoot the messenger. Me. Their second was to ignore the fact they were rolling the dice on the financial viability of Brazil and a handful of other countries with a bad history of periodically swirling the bowl.
Shortly thereafter, portfolio management and strategic planning became buzzwords if not exactly religion in that part of the bank.
Why in the world am I telling you this?
Because I'm beginning to wonder if the folks who run Whistler haven't been a little too focused on the incremental deals — opportunities — that present themselves and not quite focused enough on the bigger picture. And I'm not the only one wondering that. It seems to come up in conversation a lot.
True or not, there seems to be a feeling running through Tiny Town that far too much effort has been expended putting heads in beds and not nearly enough figuring out how to cope with the collateral damage of doing so successfully. In other words, in our mad, post-2008 global economic meltdown, when businesses throughout the resort cried out with a single voice, "DO SOMETHING!!!" when there was nothing more urgent than putting heads in beds, we seem to have lost sight of what we wanted Whistler to be when it grew up. What our strategy was and how we were going to deal with the combination of success, when it came, and our near-religious belief in limits to growth was largely ignored.
The future is now. And parts of it aren't very pretty.
But what of Whistler 2020, you ask? Aspirational, for sure, Whistler 2020 may have begun life with a soupcon of strategy and vision but it has become a filter so worn anything can find a way to pass through it. And even if it hadn't become more sword than shield, it's time to create a vision of the future; 2020 is right around the corner.
The closest thing Whistler has to a vision and strategy is the report of the Economic Partnership Initiative (EPI). The EPI group included representatives from Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), Whistler Blackcomb (WB), Tourism Whistler (TW), the Chamber of Commerce, the Hotel Association and token members of the community. Its success is clearly visible and impressive. But its focus was limited to the town's economy and how to boost it.
Where is the Community Partnership Initiative? Where is the vision for how we deal with the non-economic, human aspects of our success? What will Whistler look like and function like in five years? Ten years? Are there still limits to growth and if there are, how do we manage the inevitable consequences? A few areas of exploration come to mind.
We now include, apparently, resident-restricted housing in our march to the bed cap. Assuming there is still a bed cap, what happens when we get there? Well, one thing that'll happen is all market housing will escalate dramatically in value. This increase will very likely be exacerbated by the Vailization of the resort as people drawn to Whistler because of Vail Resort's involvement will be struck by our beauty — especially compared to Vail — and the bargain basement price of real estate.
In practical terms, that means it will become impossible for residents of Whistler, other than those with fabulously successful businesses or very large retirement nest eggs to purchase market housing. Which, in turn, puts more pressure on resident-restricted housing, more shortages of workerbees to fill the jobs our economic success requires, the offloading of more housing woes to Pemberton and Squamish, and a less vibrant community. It also means Whistler will continue to be impacted by developments on our boundaries approved by the SLRD but not necessarily supported by the RMOW.
So do we simply let this future spool out? Do we impose a foreign purchaser tax? Do we impose a non-resident, empty home tax? Vancouver has done both and perhaps we should on non-resort lands. Do we continue to let folks with more money than community ties combine adjacent lots, destroy two liveable homes to build one McMansion thus reducing our housing stock? Build 60,000 square foot homes? Is there nothing we won't do to accommodate the very wealthy?
One of the EPI's goals envisions, "A prosperous resort economy that continues to support a healthy, sustainable resort community; and remains consistent with our unique mountain culture." We've achieved the first, the second is the whole point of this column and the third is heartening in the sense there is no way a water park at Base II can be considered consistent with our unique mountain culture unless you believe it embraces crass, amusement park sideshows.
But beyond that, how do we foster a local prosperous business community when resort rents are spiralling beyond the reach of local, unique businesses? Does the RMOW create the commercial equivalent of resident-restricted housing? Do we/can we restrict foreign ownership of resort commercial property?
We have a cultural tourism strategy. Not surprisingly, it's designed to leverage culture to put heads in beds. Exactly what culture is is being explored by the RMOW and TW. Not unexpectedly, they're looking to the business community first for answers.
So do we have a culture other than business? Is it unique? How do we or can we market it to slices of tourists we'd like to attract? Is culture something we can market without destroying? What is the role(s) of the resort's key players or is there, in fact, any role for them to play in managing something they can't possibly create themselves? And why is sport always siloed off to the side when we crystal ball culture? Isn't sport the crux of Whistler's culture?
Questions, questions questions. All good ones to ask of anyone who chooses to run in the Oct. 28 by-election. All good ones to ask anyone running for office in October next year. Pretty good ones to start discussing now.