Time to look beyond 2010

Tuesday’s news that the Phoenix temporary housing project is in jeopardy is an ominous sign for a town that is already facing a tough next 18 months.

Through a spring and summer when many people’s quest for housing never really eased up, as it once did, and international advertising scams surfaced as parasites prayed on those searching for housing, the need for those 300 beds the Phoenix project promised has become more apparent than ever. On top of $1.50/litre gasoline, a restructuring airline industry, slumping economies around the world and a general labour shortage, affordable accommodation for employees through the next two winters was always going to be a challenge.

More than a year ago the business community, led by the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, recognized this need and through a tremendous, creative effort made the Phoenix project happen. In a town full of type A personalities it’s always difficult to bring people together in a coordinated effort and a timely manner to achieve a goal that may be good for the community but may not be a priority for everyone. The fact that businesses have put up the money to guarantee all 300 beds, and that there is a waiting list of businesses trying to get into the project, is a testament to the need for housing.

But it may be that the Phoenix project is the first local repercussion of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco. Many banks and financial institutions, not just in the United States but also in Canada, are not as willing to take a risk as they once were. It appears that the financier for SG Blocks, the company that turns shipping containers into housing, is among those.

Whether the project lives or dies now appears to depend on whether about $1.5 million can be found over the weekend to close the financing gap.

If the Phoenix project is lost it will mean a more difficult 18 months ahead in what is already an intense period of construction and preparation for the 2010 Olympics. Whistler has spent an enormous amount of time and effort, and not an inconsiderable amount of money, preparing for the Olympics. The list of projects that have a February 2010 deadline is long, but most will be assets for years to follow. These include the athletes’ village that will become the Cheakamus Crossing residential neighbourhood, the sewage treatment plant upgrade, the highway expansion, the Nordic centre, the Fitzsimons Creek debris barrier, celebration plaza, a new transit facility and the Squamish-Lil’wat Cultural Centre.

While the scramble is on to meet the 2010 deadline, the cumulative impact of these and other projects after 2010 hasn’t been given enough consideration. Where people live, work and play in the valley is being substantially changed in the preparations for the Games. After 2010 hundreds of households will reside full time at the south end of the valley. Some light industrial operations will be based in the middle of the valley. And an important recreation area now exists in the Callaghan Valley.

The people using some of these facilities will also change. The Nordic centre and the cultural centre, for instance, may attract new markets. They may also draw people away from activities they now do in Whistler. Live theatre may find a home through the Cultural Capitals of Canada program and celebration plaza, perhaps opening up another market.

The Squamish and Lil’wat Nations will be significant developers in Whistler over the next few years. More than 80 new market housing units will be built at Alpine North. And there could still be further development in the Callaghan Valley.

The Legacies Society, the organization responsible for operating the Nordic centre, sliding centre and athletes’ centre after the Olympics, will be another new player in the Whistler scene after 2010. The Legacies Society will be responsible for making sure its $260 million facilities remain economically viable, which may be a challenge. One way to meet that challenge may be further development in the Callaghan or at the athletes’ centre.

One of the tasks for the next council and municipal staff will be to look beyond the 2010 Olympics and start to understand the physical, institutional and societal changes that are taking place within and outside of Whistler. It’s long overdue. The municipality’s official community plan hasn’t been updated since 1994.

The 18 months remaining before the Olympics and Paralympics are going to be extremely busy, and will be made even more difficult if the Phoenix project doesn’t go through. But understanding Whistler and the new parties that will be a part of Whistler after 2010 is something that must be tackled sooner rather than later.


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