Things look pretty good in Whistler this Christmas. To start with, it's going to be a white Christmas, something many other ski areas in North America were only dreaming about, until a storm dumped on the Rocky Mountains this week.
While many ski areas suffered for lack of snow last winter and early this season, Whistler is gaining a reputation among destination skiers and snowboarders for reliable, quality snow. Regional visitors, of course, have known this for years. But the variety of licence plates in the parking lots and accents heard in cafes suggests the word is spreading even if some, like the New York Times in its Dec. 9 Travel section, continue to insist that we have "sludge" rather than snow.
Whistler's number one overall ranking in SKI Magazine this year is further testament that skiers recognize good skiing.
But beyond snow conditions, Whistler has much to be grateful for this year. On Tuesday night a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by Michael Audain and the municipality that will see Audain build and operate an international-calibre museum to house his collection of West Coast and international art in Whistler. Tonight, the new, permanent outdoor skating rink in Whistler Olympic Plaza opens.
Earlier this month it was announced that KSL Capital Partners had acquired Fortress Investment Group's stake in Whistler Blackcomb, ending Fortress's six-year involvement with WB and bringing to an end the Intrawest association with Whistler Blackcomb. For about $116 million KSL acquired 24 per cent of the publicly traded shares of Whistler Blackcomb Holdings and became the primary shareholder.
On the surface this appears to be one private investment fund exchanging places with another. Whistler Blackcomb has stated that the change in ownership will have no perceivable impact on day-to-day operations. But Councillor Roger McCarthy, who worked with KSL's principals Eric Resnick and Peter McDermott during his time at Vail Resorts, says the two are true skiers and not just investors.
It's expected a major capital project will be announced early in the new year. That would be the first in several years on Whistler or Blackcomb. Through the last days under Joe Houssian, when Whistler Blackcomb subsidized other resorts in the Intrawest portfolio, through the Fortress years of 2006-2012, which included taking Whistler Blackcomb Holdings public in 2010, there has been pressure on Whistler Blackcomb to perform for shareholders. And for the most part it has, even in the tough economy of the last four years. But shareholders' expectations have meant re-investment in the mountains' infrastructure has been frugal. It will be interesting to follow KSL's approach.
On another front, a couple of years ago Whistler began to focus on events and festivals as a means of increasing visitor numbers and awareness. This year that strategy has been refined and begun to pay off. The Tough Mudder event in June was a surprising success. Likewise the Wanderlust festival of yoga and music drew hundreds of people to town to participate in — as opposed to watch — an athletic event. Next year Ironman Canada begins a five-year commitment to hosting Ironman triathlon events in Whistler. The 2013 event is already sold out. Approximately 2,500 people will participate; many will visit for multiple days ahead of the Aug. 25 competition in order to train on the courses.
The details of the festivals, events and animation program continue to be debated, as can be expected when public money is being spent. But Whistler council's efforts to get a five-year commitment of $34 million in RMI funding from the provincial government allows for long-term planning and better decisions. The appointment of a RMI Oversight Committee helps keep the process transparent, with the final result being timely, popular concerts and festivals that help drive business in Whistler.
Meanwhile, council's efforts to hold the line on property taxes this year while at the same time re-introducing some free parking in the day skier lots has proven popular (no surprise) and has likely helped some village businesses.
For Whistler, it's been such a good year on so many levels that it's hard to add to the wish list. Arguably the two biggest obstacles on the horizon — the continually shaky economy and climate change — are largely beyond our control, although we will continue to have to live with them.
Whistler is in a fortunate position this Christmas. Skiers are recognizing it. Event organizers are recognizing it. Investors have recognized it.
Be humble and appreciative.
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