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Whistler lobbies against Squamish ski resort

Several questions about resort’s economic viability brought to ministers at UBCM

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Whistler's leaders are continuing to raise red flags with provincial ministers about the impacts of a proposed ski resort on its doorstep.

The Garibaldi at Squamish proposal was a hot item for Mayor Ken Melamed and councillors at last week's Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) convention and part of an overall plea to the province to ensure Whistler's economic viability in the long term.

Melamed said there's a perception elsewhere in B.C. that Whistler is doing well, reaping rewards from the 2010 Olympics and prospering.

But Whistler is feeling the pressures of the global economic downturn just like everyone else, as evidenced by the decreased occupancy in resort hotel rooms and what he calls the "deep discounting" of room rates.

"It suggests that Whistler has a lot of work to do before it gets to economic stability and we're going to need the province's support to get back to that place," said the mayor.

He asked for that support not only by stressing the importance of the hotel tax, which flows back to Whistler from the province, but also in the opposition of a proposed brand new ski resort just down the highway.

"We're quite confident in saying that we think that (Garibaldi at Squamish) provides a significant risk not just to Whistler but to the tourism economy of British Columbia," said the mayor this week.

The impacts of the Squamish ski resort were part of three separate discussions with ministers - Colin Hansen, minister of finance, Kevin Krueger, minister of tourism, culture and arts, and Bill Bennett, minister of community and rural development - during the weeklong UBCM convention. MLA Joan McIntyre also attended the meetings.

"We suggested to the ministers, let's give the emerging resorts a chance to build their visitor numbers and allow Whistler to get a chance to rebuild its visitor numbers up to a viable economic level," said Melamed.

"Adding more capacity into what we perceive to be over capacity of existing resorts and those existing resorts not on sound economic footing, seems to be counter productive."

Their case to the ministers included statistics showing Whistler's year-round occupancy at 55 per cent or less. The mayor said they've been told by the hotel sector that a viable economic level is around 65 per cent. He also cautioned that today's occupancy numbers are based on a time when there's deep discounting of hotel rooms.

The lobbying around Garibaldi at Squamish was part of a bigger picture message to the province about Whistler's long-term economic viability.

"I'd say Whistler's opinions are valued," said McIntyre. "They're taken seriously.

"I think there was an emphasis made on Whistler being a partner with the province in figuring out how we go forward, and emphasizing Whistler's long-term contribution to tourism and to our goals of doubling tourism revenues."

Another item up for discussion was the importance of the hotel tax, both the two per cent additional hotel tax and the four per cent resort municipalities transfer tax.

Roughly $10 million flows from the province back to Whistler from this hotel tax annually.

The way that tax is collected will be changing on July 1, 2011 when the new Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) is introduced. Whistler wanted to stress to the ministers the importance of that money to the resort and ensure a smooth transition for collecting that tax.

"Obviously Whistler wants to make sure that the progress they've made on financial tools and hotel taxes and all those things are still kept whole, which is what we were intending to do, and I think there's some real opportunities for Whistler to take a leadership in some of those efforts," said McIntyre.

While municipal leaders passed a vote at the convention asking Premier Gordon Campbell to abandon the HST, Whistler asked the ministers to take a broad look at how any taxation changes could affect resorts.

"What we really stressed was that the province take an overarching approach of understanding Whistler's vulnerability and finding ways to ensure our continued success," said Melamed.

That includes dealing with the fallout of the Class 1/6 issue. Two years ago the province changed the way taxes are assessed on condo-hotels. It has never resolved however, the unintended consequence of that decision which affects customer service levels. In other words, some condo-hotels are without a front desk, are managed by several management companies and often this results in poor customer service.

The mayor also had a chance to meet with Mary Polak, the minister responsible for childcare, about some of the challenges Whistler families are facing with the lack of spaces for children at daycare and the increased costs.

Whistler will be hosting the 2010 UBCM meeting next fall.

 

 

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