No fun after Games

While media and others around the world continue to focus on Whistler's next eight months, it's the period after the Olympics and Paralympics wrap up that should be of greater concern to Whistlerites.

Certainly there are still issues and questions to be sorted out prior to the Games, and the fact that things like security and accommodation details are still not finalized continues to hamper corridor residents' own preparations for February and March of 2010.

But within Whistler and in the world outside of Whistler, there are plenty of warnings to suggest that more thought should be devoted to the long-term fortunes of our community. Most of them have to do with economics.

Outside of Whistler, signals suggest that the economic recovery is about as consistent as an alcoholic trying to recover. There are good days and there are bad days, but it's impossible to say we're over the hump and progressing steadily upwards. The evidence this week came from many sources, including higher than expected unemployment numbers in the U.S. Pundits were not impressed.

Glen Hodgson, chief economist for the Conference Board of Canada, forecasted that Canada and the world are headed for a "joyless recovery" - held back by years of American consumers saddled with too much debt.

World Bank president Robert Zoelick warned that "2009 remains a dangerous year."

Sheryl King, the new chief economist for Merrill Lynch Canada, sees the Canadian economy barely moving by the end of 2010.

And in two recent speeches Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney was reported as being "almost dismissive of indicators of economic improvement," and warned that any good news was caused artificially by government and central bank stimulus.

This matters to Whistler because as Intrawest CEO Bill Jensen told members of the Canadian Ski Council Tuesday, "What we offer isn't something people are required to have. It's optional." And the state of the economy suggests basic requirements, like jobs and bill payments, will for many people be a higher priority than taking a vacation.

The United States, naturally, is the most important foreign market for Whistler, but many Americans will be spending the next few years trying to sort out their personal finances. As the Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson wrote this week, "That country's problems are staggering, starting with household debt that... remains at 130 per cent of disposable income..."

Evidence of Whistler's own financial problems have been front and centre in recent weeks. The introduction of pay parking at the conference centre seems to have grabbed most people's attention, but anyone who paid their property taxes last week also felt the municipality's growing thirst for funds.

This year's tax increase, the second of four in a row that is expected to see the average tax bill increase 24.5 per cent over four years, came after the provincial government froze property assessments at 2008 levels. Some are anticipating that because of the poor economy property assessments may decline next year, which could reduce municipal tax revenue.

Hotel tax revenue is another concern in light of the global and particularly the U.S. economy. We are assuming Whistler's deal with the province to receive an additional 4 per cent of the hotel tax will be extended beyond 2010, when the original agreement expires. But still, the tax revenue on $99/night rooms doesn't compare with $350/night rooms. And between last winter and next summer there will have been a lot of deals made on accommodation, with only short periods where premium room rates were charged.

Whistler's budget crunch comes in the middle of a terrible recession, but also after it failed to adequately anticipate the decline in revenues as development of new hotels and condos slowed - despite a self-imposed cap on development since the day the municipality was incorporated.

The internal and external financial indicators suggest Whistler is going to be squeezed in the period following the Olympics. But there is also going to be a turnover of some of the senior people who make decisions in Whistler following the Games. At municipal hall, Keith Bennett will be leaving to run the sliding centre, Nordic centre and athletes' centre. Plans are in the works to find a successor to chief administrative officer Bill Barratt. Jim Godfrey's contract to run Whistler's Olympic office will expire with the office. And there may be others at Tourism Whistler and/or Whistler Blackcomb who decide that the closing of the Games is a good time to seek new goals.

Change brings opportunities as well as challenges, but we have to be prepared for them. Much of the work at municipal hall for the last year, and for the next seven and a half months, has been focused on getting ready for and making the most of the Olympics. The period following the Games deserves greater attention.


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