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Whistler’s paradox

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Two university professors muse on Whistler’s social sustainability

Pique Newsmagazine asked two Vancouver-area university professors familiar with Whistler to put in their two cents about what could be called Whistler’s "million-dollar question."

The Whistler Housing Authority’s general manager and the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s community services manager said in separate interviews recently that housing and affordability are the biggest quality-of-life issues currently facing the resort’s residents. A RMOW-commissioned report considering this problem will be released to the public in the near future.

Alison Gill is a professor and chair of Simon Fraser University’s geography department, where she also holds a joint appointment in the School of Resource and Environmental Management. Her research interests include community development and planning issues in tourism environments – which have evolved from earlier research on the planning and design of single-industry mining communities.

Gill has recently focused on processes of community change associated with tourism related activities, based on her work in Whistler.

Penny Gurstein is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s community and regional planning department. She speacializes in planning, sustainable development and home-based employment and telecommuting, and is involved in UBC’s Centre for Human Settlements.

Gurstein used to visit Whistler but says it’s now too busy.

Whistler is in danger of becoming an exclusive enclave for the wealthy — something that has already occurred in resort communities such as Aspen, Colo., and Jackson Hole, Wyo., say two professors from B.C.’s top universities.

Alison Gill, who has studied the effects of tourism on Whistler since the early 1990s, said the main reason is that Whistler is starting to attract "amenity migrants."

According to Gill, "amenity migrants" are upper middle-class second-home buyers, who split time living in the city and resort towns.

"They’re affluent, they can afford to buy houses and they want urban services," she told Pique Newsmagazine .

UBC professor Penny Gurstein said the new arrivals are pushing working families who staff the tourism- and service-industry out of town.

"Homes are getting so expensive that their children will not be able to live here," she said.

"There are large houses that just sit empty for most of the year."

Gill, however, noted the trend is happening across the North American West, especially in the Colorado Rockies where communities west of Denver are growing at an exponential rate.

"The prices of homes in Aspen are obscene," she said. "Workers are being forced to live elsewhere. The out-migration of people is causing these places to become socially exclusive."

The same is happening here in Whistler and in the Canadian Rockies as urban dwellers flock to mountain communities such as Canmore, Fernie, Invermere and Golden, causing real-estate prices to go through the roof.

"They’re the driving force behind the rising cost of housing," says Gill, "and this is creating a barrier to the ordinary person.

"It’s a wicked problem that is not easily solved."

And then, Gill said, a certain type of NIMBYism sets in once those who have vested interests want their property values to go up.

"It’s the ‘Last Settler Syndrome,’ which creates a very exclusive community," she explained. "I’m not sure there’s a perfect solution."

Whistler’s bed-unit limit is seen as a barrier to affordability.

"It’s not based on any scientific carrying-capacity formula," said Gill. "There needs to be a shift in people’s thinking."

But Gill did admit that there would "probably be a riot" if the bed-unit limit was ever abolished.

Gill also said if Whistler wins the 2010 Winter Olympic bid, it will open a whole new can of worms.

"It’ll be a Catch-22 situation," she said. "Residents and tourists come here for a certain image, a certain ambience that is experienced in a natural, outdoor setting."

Gill said the Olympics could possibly ruin that ambience.

"Too many people feel Whistler is already too busy," she said.

Gurstein agreed. "There is no ambience anyway," she said. "Everything in Whistler is too controlled, too nice."

The Olympics? "Prices will skyrocket – which is great for some people, but not for others," noted Gurstein.

Another reason Whistler is wrestling with housing and affordability issues is, according to Gill, because the Whistler Housing Authority was not established early enough in the resort’s infancy to make any real difference.

"To try and catch up now is difficult," she said.

But Gill said there is one way to mitigate the effects of out-of-control prices of houses, and everything else from gas to groceries.

"People have to become involved in the community," she said. "There needs to be some sort of transparency and accountability so that the community has some type of power or control.

"Because when a community is unhappy, it gets very difficult for that community to function."

UBC’s Gurstein said this difficulty stems from the fact that there needs to be a collective understanding and community memory, a sense of connection.

"Whistler is not perceived as a community," she said. "There’s no common place to go hang out and have a good time.

"Whistler was created instantly and it has undergone Disneyification to become a successful resort," she said, resorting to some of the standard clichés.

Gill said good leaders, strong watch-dog groups and modern facilities are key factors in creating community.

"People need to be made to feel a part of the community," she said, noting that AWARE was one of the first groups to gain any real social currency in Whistler.

She also noted the importance of the Myrtle Philip Community School, Meadow Park Recreation Centre, Whistler Public Library, Whistler Museum and Archives and, now, Millennium Place.

"The municipality has worked hard to try and bring the community and resort together in order to go forward," said Gill.

Gill also mentioned Whistler’s history of thorough and careful planning and design guidelines, along with strict bylaws to enforce adherence to the codes.

"It’s critical for a successful tourist town to have its buildings conform with one another," she said.

Whistler Village, which was planned in the 1970s and then developed in the ’80s, was most strongly influenced by American Eldon Beck, the same planner who designed the original Vail village.

According to Gill, Beck was a student of Christopher Alexander, another American planner and author of the influential book A Pattern Language , who followed an environmental feng shui while designing towns and resorts – viewscapes, curving streets, town squares, well-designed buildings and covered walkways.

"But there’s a perception of paternalism here and Whistler is still considered to be a one-company town," she said, referring to Intrawest’s control of Whistler’s major employer, the ski resort.

Gurstein called Whistler an "extended company town" where workers are pushed further and further away.

"All this is, is a resort," she said. "It’s not a town."

SFU’s Gill related Intrawest’s perceived control of Whistler to a one-company mining town she has studied.

Tumbler Ridge is a planned coal-mining town of 3,700, complete with a $10-million community facility, located in the foothills of B.C.’s Rocky Mountains northeast of Prince George. The town was developed in the early 1980s by the B.C. government to house employees who worked in two nearby mines.

"The town was planned from Day 1 and it has similar demographics, the town is full of young, transient workers," Gill said.

But Tumbler Ridge, like all one-industry towns, is susceptible to the boom-bust cycles of the natural-resource economy.

One of the mines closed down last year and there was a fire sale on nearly 1,000 homes as residents moved elsewhere. Houses could be bought for $33,000; condos for $12,000.

Tumbler Ridge is now trying to reincarnate itself as a community geared towards outdoor recreation enthusiasts and second-home owners.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

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