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Whistler growth slowing but still hot

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Whistler is still the fastest growing community with more than 5,000 people in B.C.

But it has lost the distinction of being the fastest growing community in Canada.

That title now rests with Cochrane, Alberta, whose population grew 58.9 per cent over five years, according to the 2001 census released this week.

According to the census, 8,896 people lived in Whistler in 2001. In the 1996 census the population was 7,172. That’s an increase of 24 per cent, but it’s down from 61 per cent growth in the last census which covered 1991-1996.

"I guess this was to be anticipated," said Mayor Hugh O’Reilly.

"Everyone knows we are moving closer to buildout so we are anticipating that there should be slow down in permanent population.

"The speed gets everyone a little bit out of sync. Its hard to match needs with what is being built so the slow down is probably not a terrible thing, as it will allow us to really start to look at what’s there."

Whistler’s true population is probably closer to 9,500 said O’Reilly, citing May as a bad time to catch people in Whistler.

Indeed Statistics Canada admits that around 2.8 per cent of the population is not counted in the census for a variety of reasons.

Unfortunately for Whistler high growth and success in tourism hasn’t translated to financial support.

This year Whistler received the second smallest unconditional grant from the provincial government of any municipality, $34,781.

A recent study done for the One Whistler group, a partnership of Whistler business, tourism and government, found that the resort generated $1,035 billion in tourism revenue in 2000.

That generated $376.4 million in government revenues. But the resort received only 9 per cent of that revenue. The rest was shared by the provincial and federal governments.

O’Reilly hopes the Community Charter, expected to be adopted by the Liberal government this year, will help divide revenues more fairly in resort towns

"We are really trying to define the unique nature of this community," said O’Reilly.

"Really our community is an industry. Tourism is our industry and that is what we are trying to give information about.

"...We have to be looked at differently as far as our contribution and how we are financed."

The census also found there were 8,410 private dwellings.

While Whistler’s growth is staggering it pales in comparison to Pemberton which grew 91 per cent, to 1,637.

"It doesn’t shock me at all," said Pemberton Mayor Elinor Warner.

New homes have been shooting out of the ground for years and with lower housing costs, a transit system in place, and great community spirit it has become a popular place for Whistler workers to make their home.

"I think we are getting mostly the young professional from Whistler with the young family," said Warner.

"People are choosing to come and live in Pemberton because of the lifestyle and they want to bring their children up here."

But Warner takes exception to describing Pemberton as Whistler’s bedroom community.

"I don’t think people chose us because it is a convenient bedroom," she said. "They choose us because we are a community."

But growth comes at a cost.

"Our infrastructure is busting at the seams," she said. Over a million dollars has just been spent on a new water reservoir, a new elementary school is under construction, and a new sewage treatment plant is a must.

The growth also concerns Pemberton resident Wayne Coughlin.

"I think everyone here wants it to continue to be a small town," he said.

"We definitely don’t want (Pemberton) to loose its heritage or historic flavour and become a bland suburb. We don’t think it will because the council and the people who live here are strong."

Coughlin moved to Pemberton six years ago with his wife Stephanie, a recreation programmer for the Resort Municipality of Whistler.

"It is really, basically, a paradise," said Wayne as sons mark, 4, and Scott, 2 played in the background.

"We can’t believe we are here. We won the lottery."

Coughlin, who lived in Whistler for 14 years before moving to Pemberton in 1996, was drawn by the spectacular beauty of the area which boasts fertile farmland nestled in a valley whose sentinels are the 8,000 foot peaks of the Coastal Mountains.

He also loves the lifestyle. Big affordable house, big garden, big-hearted neighbours and friends.

"It is just that cliché small-town friendly willing-to-help-out community and everyone is in the same boat here," said Coughlin, ski patrol manager for Blackcomb Mountain.

But movement to rural areas, such as Pemberton, is bucking the norm. The census found that in general rural areas were losing population.

Indeed half of Canada’s population of 30,007,094 live in four sprawling urban swathes; the Toronto dominated Golden Horseshoe wrapped around the west end of Lake Ontario; Montreal and its surroundings; the Lower Mainland of British Columbia; and the Calgary-Edmonton corridor.

Incredibly these four areas held 51 per cent of Canadians.

The phenomenon is driven by immigration to urban areas.