An outline for action 

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The federal government has re-launched its Economic Action Plan (kudos if you can remember any details from the first two Economic Action Plans), and while most of the seven members of Whistler council probably aren't followers of Stephen Harper's Conservatives, they, too, have launched an Action Plan, which could be called an economic action plan.

Whistler Council's Action Plan, which was introduced in January, is a positive, straight-forward and refreshingly hopeful roadmap for the next three years. It's a plan for the times. It reflects this council's, and most of this community's, priorities in that it is focused on the success of "the resort," including the challenges and opportunities facing Whistler in the next three years.

That seems like an obvious starting point for a new council that was elected with an overwhelming mandate to instigate change. Except that it suggests that previous councils, weren't concerned about Whistler's success. That's definitely not the case, although there were other priorities at various times.

In the '90s the focus was on building the resort. Councils of the day, the community and the provincial government, which was selling off parcels in Village North as fast as it could, were all interested in building Whistler and competing with Vail and Aspen. And with the rapid pace of development the money flowed into municipal hall in the form of development cost charges.

There were several setbacks around the turn of the century that affected Whistler's success, including the dot-com bust, 9/11 and SARS. And about this time many people grew tired of development and demanded municipal hall put a little more emphasis on the community of Whistler.

But the awarding of the 2010 Winter Olympics in July of 2003 meant that for the next seven years much of successive councils' focus was on preparing for the Games. The success of the resort certainly wasn't ignored, but it was generally viewed in the context of how much better business could be for all if Whistler hosted a successful Olympics and then leveraged that Olympic exposure.

To get to that point, however, required a lot of infrastructure improvements and a lot of time planning and preparing for the Games. Those preparations also drew down municipal reserves. In recent years the reserves were rebuilt, partly through increased taxes and utility fees. Whether municipal accounts could have or should have been addressed earlier is a moot point now, but one chart presented at the recent open house on this year's municipal budget shows how councils of the late '90s and first years of the 2000s kept tax increases to the rate of inflation, even while buildout loomed and revenues from development cost charges dwindled.

Which brings us to the present council's Action Plan. It identifies a number of priorities that are elements in the resort's success and lays out six-, 12-, 18- and 36-month timelines to achieve them. These include things like working with the province to change special occasion liquor licence policies, "advancing" the post-secondary initiative, expanding sport tourism and "pursuing an economic development strategy."

The Action Plan is a general guideline and provides few details, but a report to council this week provides some background context for an economic development strategy.

The Commercial and Industrial Opportunity Supply and Positioning Assessment, prepared by G.P. Rollo and Associates, evaluated existing policies and land uses in the context of the OCP review, but more importantly it spoke some plain truths. Among them, the redevelopment of Creekside has been a failure. The report recommends "new visions for the Creekside area, specifically Franz's Trail."

The report further recommends zoning bylaws in Function Junction be streamlined to allow for a broader range of businesses and Mons should be rezoned for industrial use.

Rollo and Associates also found that statistical data is lacking. "The economic downturn has had clear impacts on Whistler retailers with anecdotal reports of lower visitor spending." Among the firm's key findings: "Visitor spending data should be revisited. The data used in our analysis was based on surveys undertaken long before the economic downturn, which has changed spending habits of Whistler visitors. The extent to which those spending habits have changed in each retail merchandise category is, however, unknown without new visitor spending surveys."

The vacancy rate for commercial space when Rollo and Associates conducted their assessment in 2011 was 7.6 per cent for all of Whistler. That ranged from 5 per cent in the village to 20.9 per cent in Function Junction. The report noted that the village traditionally has had a commercial vacancy rate of 1 per cent.

The new council's Action Plan is a useful document. The report by Rollo and Associates is a good companion piece, bringing some hard facts to light and showing some starting points for an economic development strategy.

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