Resort communities state their case for RMI 

Recent report details huge upside attached to provincial tourism funding

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MIKE CRANE/TOURISM WHISTLER - UP IN THE AIR As the 2017 deadline for the provincial Resort Municipality Initiative funding program nears, resort communities are making the case for extending it.
  • Photo by Mike Crane/Tourism Whistler
  • UP IN THE AIR As the 2017 deadline for the provincial Resort Municipality Initiative funding program nears, resort communities are making the case for extending it.

With the future of Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) funding unclear beyond 2017, British Columbia's 14 RMI communities are stressing the importance of the program.

A report commissioned by the communities — titled RMI Funding: Building on Success — was presented to provincial Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training Shirley Bond at last month's Union of BC Municipalities convention in Victoria.

"Right now, technically, the RMI program ends at the end of 2017, and Minister Bond has made it quite clear that she sees the value of this program," said Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

"She sees the return on investment that the province reaps from the RMI program, and she wants to convince her cabinet colleagues that this program needs to continue."

In an emailed response from Bond's office the minister said: "We are reviewing the RCC report and working with them to get more insight and clarification on some of the statistics and recommendations.

"The province invests over $98 million annually in the tourism sector.

"The RMI is one part of that investment and has met with great success."

Some key findings from the report: Tourism spending in the 14 RMI communities grew by just over 38 per cent from 2011 to 2015; the rest of the province grew just 20 per cent.

The accommodation revenues collected in those communities grew 42 per cent (the rest of the province grew 29 per cent).

The 14 RMI communities welcome 5.34 million visitors every year — 105 visitors for every local resident.

Though the 14 RMI communities have only one per cent of the total provincial population, they collectively contribute 29 per cent of the taxes contributed to the province by the tourism sector ($265 million annually), 30 per cent of the province's tourism export revenues ($1.97 billion annually) and 16 per cent of provincial tourism employment (21,375 jobs).

In Whistler, the impact of RMI funds has been clear.

"When you look at the numbers out of Whistler and compare them to, for example, the film industry, Whistler generates $1.53 billion in GDP, the film industry in the entire province of B.C. generates between $1.1 billion and $1.4 billion," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"Whistler has 15,000 jobs, the entire film industry in the entire province of B.C. generates between 15,000 and 20,000 jobs."

But the real kicker comes attached to the return-on-investment figures: through tax credits and grants, the province invests hundreds of millions of dollars into the film industry, Wilhelm-Morden said.

Through the RMI program, Whistler got about $6.5 million this year.

"So (hundreds of millions in tax breaks) gets you $1.1 to $1.5 billion GDP, $6.5 million here in Whistler gets you $1.53 billion GDP," she said.

Without RMI funds, Whistler would "be looking at an 18- to 20-per-cent property tax increase to make up those moneys," Wilhelm-Morden said.

In Revelstoke, RMI funding has meant new cross-country trails, a cross-country ski lodge, new groomers, lights for night skiing and more, said Alan Mason, director of community economic development with Revelstoke.

"We make really good use of these funds, and some of the money has also been spent just to spruce up the downtown, so that when people come here it's attractive," Mason said.

"I think for a lot of the smaller places like Revelstoke, our infrastructure was pretty basic, and so this money has helped us to really improve and upgrade and provide good quality infrastructure, which helps us attract people."

In Tofino, the funds have been put towards new trails, handicap accessible beach access, visitor shuttles and aesthetic street improvements, said Mayor Josie Osborne.

"(Without RMI funds), I think Tofino would be less accessible, more difficult to get around, and it's just not as inviting and as welcome as it can be by having good infrastructure," Osborne said.

"I think this was a really visionary program for the province to establish in the first place, so I think what all resort municipalities are hoping for is an extension of the program to give us certainty, so that we can plan for the future for the next five, 10 years, and continue to work with the province to refine the program."

The report also included comparative stats from resorts around the world, many of which boast budgets that are bolstered by a resort sales tax.

"There's a much bigger issue here, which would be a major policy decision for the province, and that is that most successful resort communities have some ability to get a large portion of their revenues from the tourist spend in resorts, as opposed to looking at property taxes," said Sun Peaks Mayor Al Raine.

"To have a resort-wide sales tax would certainly be a fair way to fund tourism costs."

RMI money has been used to boost Sun Peaks' summer offerings, Raine said.

"The most important thing for us was to go from where we were almost a nonexistent summer resort to where people started to think about Sun Peaks as a summer destination, and that's proven to be a good decision, because certainly we're in double-digit increases in our summer market," Raine said.

Without financial support of some kind, "business is going to start to decline," he added.

"Some people think 'Oh no, Whistler is on a big roll, it would take years for it to decline,' and my response would be, 'Yeah, if it takes years for it to decline then it's going to take years for it to build itself back up again to where it once was."

With a provincial election scheduled for May 2017, it's unclear when a decision will be made regarding the future of RMI funding.

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