RMOW budget: Whistler delivers more than roads, water and sewers 

Municipality also responsible for trails, concerts

Pique, Nov. 16, 2011

Ever taken a spin on a mountain bike through the Zappa trails in Lost Lake Park?

Check out a free concert in the village this summer?

Ever gone for a swim or a skate at Meadow Park or meandered along the 40-kilometres of Valley Trail?

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) funds all of these things - a measure of its far-reaching impact on all parts of Whistler life from flushing the toilets and drinking the water, to riding the bus and hanging out at the park.

This summer it took on an even bigger role as the driving force behind Whistler Presents - part of the $2.9 million Festival Events and Animation budget designed to "build event production, spectator experience and visitor satisfaction for a range of events in Whistler."

In this fourth, and last, installment of a series on municipal budgeting leading up to the election, Pique examines how the municipality is involved in so much more than just the "core services" - or those basic services that residents expect from their local government - services like water, sewer and roads.

By its very name Whistler is a "resort municipality", unlike other communities. As such it is at the forefront of the "Whistler experience."

Whistler doesn't just provide core services; it delivers and manages part of the tourism product.

It keeps the village spick and span and the flower baskets blooming, the Valley Trail in good repair and the parks in pristine condition.

All of that money comes from the stressed $77 million municipal budget.

"People are rightly and justifiably concerned about how we're going to be able to afford to continue to provide the services and remain economically competitive," said Mayor Ken Melamed.

Even stripped down to traditional core services, Whistler is still unlike other towns.

The multimillion-dollar wastewater treatment plant, for example, is designed per engineering requirements to accommodate 75,000 people.

Whistler has a permanent population that balloons to about 50,000 at peak times like the Christmas holidays.

"This community has services that go so well beyond the needs of the permanent and even the secondary population," Melamed explained.

"Our water, our sewer, much of those fundamental services are sized for a much bigger population."

In recent years, however, Whistler has been bestowed a $7.5 million annual grant from the province designed to increase visitation and hotel occupancy. It's called the RMI money - Resort Municipality Initiative.

There is no toolkit, no roadmap, on how to spend the money, said Melamed.

But the spending has come under fire in the wake of concerts that brought acts like the Barenaked Ladies, the Sam Roberts Band and Tom Cochrane to rock out at Whistler Olympic Plaza this summer.

Was the money well spent? Was it good for local businesses? Did it achieve what it was set up to do - drive tourism in the resort?

The jury is out on that.

Melamed said, however, that the program will continue to evolve and the municipality will examine what is the best way to deliver this service.

"We're not stuck to keeping the program in house necessarily," he said.

"The objective is to invest these monies as widely as possible in the things that the community believes are in the best interest of stimulating tourism in the resort."

The municipality has had its hand in the tourism business for years, he added. It has put on events like the annual New Year's Eve celebration, First Night. It has facilitated major sports and entertainment events such as Crankworx and the World Ski and Snowboard Festival. Its role historically, however, has been more behind the scenes.

With the advent of the RMI, and the focus on the flagging economy and lowered visitation numbers, there is a new focus at the Hall. It is designed to help Whistler weather the peaks and valleys of the tourism storm.

Said the mayor: "We didn't need to have these kinds of tourism stimulus program back in the glory days when everybody was coming here."




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