Stakeholders from Whistler and the Sea to Sky region met to discuss the future of the resort at an event hosted by the Whistler Real Estate Company (WREC) and sponsored by BlueShore Financial on Saturday, Jan. 27.
Speakers at the event — called "The View From Here" with a theme of New Horizons — included WREC president Pat Kelly, MLA Jordan Sturdy, Resort Municipality of Whistler CAO Mike Furey, Whistler Blackcomb COO Pete Sonntag, Lil'wat Nation political chief Dean Nelson and Helmut Pastrick, chief economist for Central 1 Credit Union.
Each speaker was given 30 minutes, followed by a short Q&A.
Pastrick was up first, giving an overview of economic conditions at home and around the world.
"The global economy is on a good growth swing, and there's no recession on the horizon, at least not when you look at economic internals," Pastrick told the crowd of about 175 people.
That being said, trade policy and geopolitical conflicts could change things quickly, Pastrick said.
"When you think of what's going on in North Korea, the Middle East, South China Sea... any one of those could blow up and cause obviously very negative shock to financial markets, to the economy, and then down we go into recession," he said.
But as long as the external indicators stay positive, Whistler, Vancouver and B.C. will continue to do well, Pastrick said.
"We are a small economy and we are very much subject to those external forces, so I think the tourism outlook will remain positive," he said. "Even if the Canadian dollar does appreciate some more, I don't think it will be too damaging. I think it needs to be 90 cents plus, near parity, then you'll begin to see a much more negative effect from foreigners in reaction to the higher dollar.
"I think we'll see the Sea to Sky region perform well this year and probably next year."
Sturdy took the podium next, and spent much of his time speaking about transportation, housing and capacity issues.
"You build it and they will come. They are coming," Sturdy said. "The forecast is good... clearly the direction is positive economically, development-wise, but it comes with development pressures, it comes with capacity issues, and we've all seen it at Joffre Lakes."
In the case of Joffre, the province recently counted 2,500 people on the trail in one day, Sturdy said, to an audible gasp from the crowd.
"This is a balancing act that we need to understand, because at the end of the day, it's about the quality of the experience that the people who live here have, and equally the quality of the experience that the people who visit here have, and that's our job," Sturdy said.
"We don't have a drawbridge, and many would never advocate for one. But when Squamish is forecasted to double in population in the next 20 years... our quality of lives are going to be affected, so it's something that we have to focus on."
Kelly took the podium third, and offered a glimpse into real-estate markets along the corridor, as well as what the situation looks like going forward.
Some factors to consider in the near future are rising interest rates, affordability and construction costs, Kelly said.
"Quite frankly... I don't think there's enough contractors to meet the demand, and that can't do anything but drive up prices, and possibly make things less affordable and also make some projects unfeasible," Kelly said.
"There is just not enough subtrades, not enough general contractors for what appears to be in the neighbourhood of 1,000 units to be built in the corridor in the next couple of years."
New provincial regulations (a possible speculation tax and changes to how realtors do business were mentioned), and a potential for oversaturation are also on the radar.
"Certainly anecdotally we are hearing comments about how much is too much, at what point do we reverse 'how wonderful this is' into 'isn't it really busy?' and 'I'd rather not go,' and that's a problem for both tourism and real estate," Kelly said.
And then there's the Vancouver factor.
"As Vancouver goes, so goes Whistler," Kelly said. "So if the Vancouver real-estate market collapses, I don't think we'll see anywhere near as much demand here, and despite the fact we are seeing more interest from foreign buyers, there aren't enough of them to fill the gap if the Vancouver market disappears."
Furey was first to speak after a short intermission, and gave some historical context of Whistler in recent years before detailing work undertaken by the RMOW on things like housing and transportation.
On transportation, Furey mentioned a provincial study underway to examine the potential for a third highway lane from Function Junction to Village Gate Boulevard.
"It would require some road widening in certain areas, that could be a combination with a cheater bus lane... where buses pull out and get around the traffic," Furey said.
"We're also working closely with the Lil'wat and the Squamish Nations and the District of Squamish and Pemberton on extending BC Transit into a regional transit model — so going from Mount Currie right to Vancouver with a transit system — and we are hopeful to have that up and going in the next couple of years."
By addressing challenges around transportation, the hope is that local greenhouse gas emissions will drop as well — a study by University of Victoria climate scientists predicts Whistler will see longer, hotter, drier summers, an increase in the intensity and frequency of heavy rain events, and milder winters overall in the next 50 years.
"But interestingly, the snowpack at a higher level will see limited change, which is encouraging," Furey said. "I had heard that Aspen did a similar exercise, and by 2075, they expect to have no skiing in Aspen with their predicted climate change."
Nelson was second last to speak, detailing the history of the Lil'wat people, the lasting impacts of colonization and the residential school system, and new opportunities the Nation is now starting to realize.
The Lil'wat are working towards self governance — a path that won't be easy or quick, but one the people are committed to, Nelson said.
"Moving towards self governance means exploring opportunities of the lands and resources management, establishing strong partnerships and growing the Nation's business," Nelson said.
"New economic opportunities are being realized in forestry and energy, construction, retail and tourism, through partnering with companies that recognize the benefit of working with the nation.
"Moving forward, the Lil'wat Nation will be a full participant in the economy of the region."
The Lil'wat currently have four major projects underway, including the development of a gas station, retail space and housing units in Function Junction, Nelson said.
"To do business with the Lil'wat Nation, our partners have to understand that the land and its resources belong to all the people," he said.
"Every Lil'wat citizen has an opportunity to give input into the plans, policies and protocol that pertain to the land and its stewardship."
Rounding out the afternoon was Sonntag, who spoke about Vail Resorts' corporate structure and policies, a new competitor on the ski resort landscape (Alterra Mountain Company and its recently announced Ikon Pass), and some of the company's future plans for Whistler.
Asked about housing after the presentation, Sonntag noted Vail Resorts has committed $30 million across all of its resorts to help get projects off the ground.
But the housing situation in Whistler is better than in other mountain communities, and what that funding might look like for WB housing projects is unclear at this time.
"We're in active discussions right now," Sonntag said. "I can't share anything yet, but we have a couple of things that we're actively working on that I really hope will come through, and we're going to continue to do our part to take care of our staff as best we can."