T –365 days 

One year prior to the Games, how has Whistler’s Olympic ledger balanced?

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It feels like Whistler has been waiting to host the Olympics forever.

For years the resort community has been engaged in discussions, sometimes heated, about what the Games will mean to the town, for the locals, for the visitors, and for the future.

But the time for armchair debate is almost over.

Now it's time for action.

World Cups are underway with hundreds of volunteers and Olympic workers studying every facet of the events in preparation for February 2010. This is the second season for Whistler venues to be in operation, a level of readiness unheard of at recent Olympics.

The municipality is turning its strategic goals into actions, tourism organizations are ramping up to make sure Whistler is front and centre as media from around the world arrive in droves, and Olympic organizers are taking their table-top plans outside.

It is hard to gauge the true impact the 2010 Olympics will have on Whistler. The Games will be the largest event Canada has ever hosted. It is expected that the resort will be full every night of the Games - that means about 50,000 people will be in the valley, both residents and visitors.

In all, 250,000 people are expected to attend the Games.

Already thousands of incremental room nights have come to the resort thanks to the World Cup events here.

While there is no doubt its impact can be measured in legacies, many would argue the greatest legacy - getting the word out about Whistler as a four-season holiday destination to the world - cannot be measured. It is priceless.

The resort municipality will spend close to $10 million to make sure it gets the most out of the experience and it is estimating, according to its Investing in the Dream document, that Whistler will receive $87.7 million in cash investment.

"I'm one of the ones who thinks the Games have over-delivered on its promises to the community," said Whistler Mayor Ken Melamed.

As we race into the final months what has been accomplished and what is left to do? On both sides of the ledger the list is extensive.

When Whistler first got involved the community made it clear to Olympic organizers that it had to do so on its own terms. Community leaders also decided to use the Games as a way to get several key commitments, including: a boundary expansion, a 300-acre community land bank, a new resident neighbourhood, upgrades to the Whistler Conference Centre, a greater percentage of the hotel tax, and lasting partnerships.

All of these have been achieved.

"The list goes on and on," said Jim Godfrey, executive director of the municipality's 2010 Games office.

That's not to say there haven't been changes and challenges.

"Change is the rule in hosting an event like this because of the size and magnitude," said Melamed.

"It is just naïve to believe that things are going to go forward exactly as forecast or expected. So it is about how we adapt to the change and manage to deliver the Games within the framework and the promise that we made to the community."

One of the great losses was giving up a promised ice-rink, which was to be used as the venue for the Paralympic sledge hockey. It would just have cost too much money. That decision was followed by years of consultation on the fate of Lot1/9, which morphed into the town's celebration site and medals plaza. The site was all but clear-cut last summer in preparation for construction of the medals plaza.

Last month Olympic organizers said the medals would not, after all, be handed out there because the cost overlay associated with the activity was too high at a time of financial restraint. It will still be a site of celebrations; more on that later.

It's hard to know which side of the ledger to put resort accommodation on. On the plus side the predictions have all been that Whistler will be at capacity because it is considered the heart of the Games. But on the face of it the news on this issue has never been positive. VANOC is still struggling to line rooms up, many strata owners have still to reveal what they are doing with their accommodations, and high prices - Whistler is three times the cost of Vancouver - have pushed national sport organizations and some members of the media in to the waiting arms of Vancouver accommodations providers.

"In terms of lessons learned that is probably the one we missed the biggest on," said Melamed.

"The one that undermined us the most is the most obvious one: that Whistler is three times the price of Vancouver. We were told by everybody that we would be full, that there was high demand, that everyone would want to be in Whistler.

"...But when people began to come here and compare prices between Whistler and Vancouver it was just a rational economic decision which no one can fault them for.

"I don't know how we missed that. It seems so obvious now."

It is why continuing to reach out to the accommodation sector is on the top of the "to do list" for this last year before the Olympics.

Without a full resort the buzz and animation organizers are hoping to create may fall flat.

"...We want to have a buzz that will be just unreal," said Godfrey.

"This will be the jewel of the Games. This will be the place to come. This will be where the memories are created.

"But what is key to this... is that the accommodation sector has to make sure that every room is rented."

VANOC's executive vice president of services and Games operations, Terry Wright, is afraid Whistler will relive the experience of the alpine host of the 2002 Olympics, Park City.

"I think what is going to happen is the same thing that happened in Park City," he said. "We are going to get close to the Games and 25 per cent of the condo owners are going to go, 'Damn. I didn't make any money and my condo is empty and it is all the Games' fault.'

"And we are going to be saying... that for three years we have been trying to give you a fair rental on your condo and if you chose not to take a fair rental that was your option..."

As the final countdown begins VANOC has set an even more ambitious timeline. It wants to be operational by Dec. 15, said Wright.

The biggest part of getting operational is mobilizing the 40,000 people between VANOC and its partners who have to be recruited and assigned and trained and readied to put on the Games.

"Building the team and having them ready to go is one of our biggest focuses," said Wright.

It is an exciting time, said VANOC CEO John Furlong.

"We are finally able to say the Games are next year and that is big, so you can certainly feel the positive momentum and optimism," said Furlong.

In many ways the event is already underway, as venues, staff, and volunteers deal with nine World Cups this year.

So far so good, said Furlong. In fact he would welcome some challenges in the way of inclement weather during the test events.

"I think we could do with a bit more adversity," said Furlong, who has been at the helm of the Games since the bid days. Vancouver won the right to host the Games in July 2003.

However, Furlong is keeping his fingers crossed that test events won't mean any major changes to the venues. Last year's events did result in modifications, including more protection at the Whistler Sliding Centre and installation this summer of a temporary chairlift for spectators to access the alpine events, to name two.

"We are in that time now where we are trying to perfect our craft a little bit, and then after that it is just the sheer volume of things that have to be done in logistics and transportation and accommodation to set the stage," said Furlong.

The Games are expected to cost $1.76 billion to put on. In the early days it was expected that there would be a surplus, but given the present recession that is unlikely. The venues came in at $580 million, with the cost being split between the federal and provincial governments.

For Whistler's part there is a myriad of things to get done. A top 10 list could include: finalizing the long-awaited transportation plan due to come out later this month, producing the resident and business guide for Games time, recruiting and training volunteers, helping VANOC secure accommodation through the Homestay and other programs, completing the athletes' village neighbourhood, finalizing the hosting plans for dignitaries such as the King of Norway and the President of the United States, finalizing service plans so every garbage can and every banner has a home, and finishing the Celebration Plaza.

John Rae, the municipality's manger of strategic alliances, believes the Celebration Plaza could set a new standard for Games entertainment and festivities.

"It is going to be the jewel within the jewel," he said. "The celebration site is something we are extremely excited about."

It will have two giant video screens and a huge stage: "Large enough for any act that you could imagine," said Rae.

Negotiations are underway with international, national and emerging acts to perform.

There is also a close synergy with CTV, the official broadcasters of the Games in Canada.

Rae said the broadcaster, which will have its anchor studio in Mountain Square, is planning to move its Much Music studio to town and use Celebration Plaza as a major platform for its show. It might even be that an athlete, after receiving their medal at the venue, would appear on the Much Music show and be interviewed before walking with hosts or celebrities down to Celebration Plaza to be feted.

"This will be one of the great traditions that evolves through the Games," said Rae of Celebration Plaza.

"...We are going to make all those athletes into rock stars.... We will be introducing them, we will be showing clips of their winning performance and they will be standing there with their medals proudly displayed."

While details are still being worked out, the hope is that Celebration Plaza will be a nightly hub of entertainment.

Without the medal ceremonies and the bussed in spectators that would have come with them, there is concern that the numbers in the village just won't be there to create critical mass.

The idea of providing a shuttle so spectators can get to the plaza from Creekside or Whistler Olympic Park in the Callaghan has been discussed, said Godfrey.

"We are working on it," he said. "VANOC is sympathetic to the issue, we are sympathetic to the issue, and we are looking at what the solutions are and what the impact would be."

But there is no getting away from the realization that many spectators, having spent three hours on one of the 1,050 buses to get from Vancouver to a Whistler venue, then several hours at the venue and facing a return journey to the city, are unlikely to want to spend additional time in the village.

"We will probably have more flexibility around the sliding centre (on Blackcomb)... and we will probably have some flexibility on the alpine (at Creekside), but for Whistler Olympic Park our preference will be to move the Vancouver-originating spectators back to Vancouver," said Wright.

VANOC expects half of the spectators at Whistler venues to be staying in Whistler - that's about 22,000 people.

Perhaps the most important thing to focus on in the next year is not the Games themselves, it is how to use them to get opportunities in the future.

"The biggest challenge that we have is maximizing the benefits," said Colin Hansen, B.C.'s Olympic minister and the Minister of Finance.

"Let's not in the fall of 2010 be saying to ourselves, if only we had done more of this, or more of that.

"Given that the we are going to be showcasing to the world, we need over the next 12 months, and this applies to every corner of British Columbia... to really think how can we position ourselves and what do we have to do to really capitalize on this opportunity that is about to present itself."

In this global economic recession the Olympics is regarded as a huge economic stimulus, and one, said Hansen, that will help B.C. weather the current financial storm.

But NDP leader Carole James believes it is dangerous to think the Olympics are a panacea for the recession.

"I have heard people say that the Olympics are a way to turn around the economy," she said. "I am not that optimistic about the Olympics being that tool, but I do see it as one tool... that will provide us with some economic stimulus."

Chief amongst the opportunities is tourism.

For many years now Tourism Whistler has been working on strategies to take advantage of the Games. This year will see droves of media and tourism partners entertained in the resort, with a view to growing tourism in the years to come. The message that the Olympic venues are finished, the resort is open for business, and there is accommodation now and in the Olympic year is being spread far and wide.

"I think the single largest legacy that Whistler will receive is the international media exposure," said Barrett Fisher, president of Tourism Whistler.

"We have always hosted World Cups, we have always hosted championships, and we have always put on events and concerts and animation. So this is just really the pinnacle of all that experience coming together to truly showcase the genuine commodity of who we are."


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