On Dec. 7 Whistler council will let everyone know what it thinks of David Strangway’s offer to build a private university in Whistler. For those who haven’t already guessed, the answer will be "thanks, but no thanks."
Whistler is apparently one of three towns Strangway and his group are considering for their university. Squamish, which this week laid out an enthusiastic welcome mat, and Nelson are the other two towns. Squamish has offered two sites, one at the proposed Garibaldi at Squamish resort development and the other on land scheduled to be logged.
Nelson already has a university site, the former campus of Notre Dame University. In recent years it has been used as part of a student exchange program with Japan.
Both towns would dearly love to have the university for the economic diversity and boost to the local economy it would provide.
In Whistler, on the other hand, the general feeling is we’ve seen enough development to last us for quite some time. Even though education has been identified as one of the most desirable ways of diversifying the local economy, Strangway and his group are seeking about 100 acres and perhaps 2,000 bed units for their university, and all of Whistler’s bed units have been allocated.
To accommodate the school would require two things. First, an amendment to the official community plan to increase the ceiling on development. That would mean public hearings on the issue of development beyond the bed unit cap, and there doesn’t appear to be much public appetite for such a plan right now.
Second, any 100 acre site available — such as the BC Rail lands on the west side of Alta Lake, the Prospero property or Crown land — would likely require servicing. The cost of extending sewer, water and other services to the edge of most of those properties is something the municipality probably can’t afford right now.
On top of these obstacles, some members of council have also questioned the value to the community of a private university. So, while we will have to wait a couple of weeks for the official answer there is little doubt about what it’s going to be.
However, the Strangway proposal does raise a question: shouldn’t Whistler have a strategy or set of criteria in place so that everyone — including Whistler — knows under what circumstances it would look at new developments or opportunities that would diversify the economy?
About four years ago, during the orgy of construction in Village North, the council of the day made a conscious decision to drop economic diversification from its agenda. Council and municipal staff had their hands full dealing with development in Village North.
The present council, and municipal staff, are now playing catch-up on a number of issues that should have been dealt with years ago: the long-term capital plan, an environmental strategy and new sources of revenue once the development-well finally dries up.
Establishing a strategy to attract new types of industry, such as education and high-tech, and laying out the parameters under which such industries would be welcomed would not only help diversify the local economy, it would lead to additional sources of revenue for the municipality.