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RMI secure for three years but threat to funding remains

Whistler relieved but ready to explore options beyond 2017



Whistler may have another $21 million heading its way over the next three years to fund tourism projects, but there's a chance the provincial well may be dry after 2017.

The province has confirmed the threatened Resort Municipality Initiative, or RMI, funding for another three years, a one-year extension of the current agreement, adding an annual funding cap of $10.5 million to be divvied between the 14 B.C. resorts.

Beyond 2017, however, it's anyone's guess.

All options are back on the table again to look at ways of capturing funding for tourism without relying on the backs of the local taxpayers, or the grace of the provincial government.

"The... thing that we've been talking about both in government as well as with the municipality is that we really have to look at how this program carries on into the future and look for other mechanisms... to look at how we can create additional certainties so that we can have Whistler be the masters of their own destiny," said MLA Jordan Sturdy during a break in session in Victoria on Monday, Feb. 23.

The RMI program is an annual $10.5 million program in which hotel funds are collected in 14 B.C. resorts and then doled back into the communities for tourism-related projects based on a formula.

Every year Whistler receives around $7.1 million.

"That is a huge sigh of relief," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden of the news that the funding is still in effect for another three years, until the end of 2017.

She knows just how critical the program is in Whistler — funding the $3.1 million festivals and events program, funding the village ice rink, funding the village host program, among a long list of projects.

"To extend it by a year is great news for us," she added. "We weren't expecting that."

It was also welcome news to event producers like Watermark Communications who see the direct benefits. This year, for example, Watermark received $40,000 for Cornucopia and $113,000 for the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF).

"It plays a big role in everything we do at this point," said Sue Eckersley, of Watermark Communications, who said she had been anticipating that this would be the last year of RMI funding.

"The funding that has come our way for Cornucopia and WSSF is huge."

Still, there is recognition that time may be running out on the RMI and Whistler needs to explore its options. It has the most to lose, after all.

"We need to have a blank sheet almost, and say 'if we want to fund this type of activity and make these type of investments over the longer term, what's the best way for us to do that?" said Sturdy.

"I think we have to recognize that Whistler has unique demands. Whether the RMI is the right mechanism or not, I think is the conversation that we want to have."

Conversations in Whistler have already begun.

"There are all kinds of tourism-related businesses going on," said the mayor.

"Maybe there should be a broader-based approach?"

Sturdy, too, added that hotel rooms are just one part of the tourism economy.

"For day-trippers, you're not capturing any revenues. Is there another way of approaching this?"

Sturdy, who lobbied the province on Whistler's behalf this past year, said he encouraged the year extension, not only because the program is seeing the return on its investment, but also to give Whistler time to come up with alternatives should the funding get pulled.

"It's all very well to think that we can come up with a new plan in no time at all, but I've been around long enough to know these things take time, consultation, discussion, back and forth," he said.

The program only came into effect after Whistler lobbied hard for several years to get "financial tools" — a recognition of the unique situation tourism-based economies face keeping their product fresh and inventive on the backs of a small tax base.

"We're pleased to be able to confirm that we will be continuing the Resort Municipality Initiative," said Tourism Minister Shirley Bond in an email to the Pique. "We expect to be able to provide individual resort communities with specific funding amounts very shortly.

"What I can tell you is that the $87.6 million invested since the RMI's inception in 2006 has helped 14 communities diversify and strengthen their tourism opportunities and regional economies. Over $60 million has been provided to Whistler alone."

And therein may lie some of the problem.

"The fact is that over the years the vast majority of the money has gone to Whistler," said Sturdy. "Understandably, other resorts around the province have very much wanted to get a hold of additional amounts. I mean, it's natural; everyone wants to have a bigger share of the pie."


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