For an administration so utterly focused on cost-savings and belt-tightening for the past three-and-a-half years, something seems amiss with the latest municipal pet project.
No, it's not last week's $3.5-million decision to connect 32 homes on the west side of Whistler to the sewer system, although that has raised eyebrows, too; rather, it's the $20,000 council decision to take off together on a four-day fact-finding mission to Colorado.
All seven members of council are on the itinerary, along with four senior members of municipal staff, a rep from Tourism Whistler (TW) and the president of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce. TW and the chamber will pay their own way.
All told, 13 people from Whistler are making the journey stateside in October to check out the competition.
This announcement tells us several things: just how seriously we're taking our competition and how much we think there is to learn from them. It also tells us that there may not be as much concern about the public perception of spending taxpayers' money as perhaps there once was. The heightened sensitivity of four years ago has been toned down in the wake of record-breaking summers and a council eager to appease the masses with belt-tightening.
Let's face it, this decision would have been impossible to make in the first year of the last term.
What makes it OK now?
It turns out that not everyone thinks it's a worthwhile plan and money well spent to send 13 people to Colorado.
Council may be calling it a fact-finding mission; others, however, are calling it a boondoggle.
This is uneasy territory. Criticizing this Whistler administration for reckless spending, the same administration, give or take a few faces, that has held the line on taxes for three years running, with only a slight increase in the fourth year, the very administration that pared down the hall and claimed to squeeze the budget dry, and then actually proved that they did just that.
While it could be argued that $20,000 is mere chump change in a $70-million-plus-dollar budget, it could also be argued that most of that budget comes from property taxes. And that $20,000 is your property taxes. And your neighbours'. And their neighbours', too.
Other administrations have been roasted on decisions amounting to much less. Does anyone remember the flash Arc'teryx jackets for municipal staff in years gone by?
It's all about perception.
So, to what end is council, every member of council, making this trip?
Among other things, the 13-strong delegation is going to check out Vail's airport. Whistler has long talked about an airport to bump tourism and while learning about Vail's airport isn't going to make Whistler's valley any wider or Pemberton's airport easier to land in, there could be some very good info here to keep on the backburner.
The trip also includes learning more about Aspen's arts and culture with a closer look at, among other things, the Aspen Institute. The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C. There is a campus in Aspen, the institute's birthplace, and the idea is to foster leadership and dialogue through conferences and seminars and policy programs.
They will also meet with reps from the Aspen Music Festival, one of the top classical music festivals in the U.S., which brings in 70,000 audience members over an eight-week summer season.
Could it be council is getting even more serious about developing and expanding educational opportunities in Whistler? One can hope that the hard work and months-long investigations of the Learning and Education Task Force will soon pan out to more than a few weeklong artistic courses for the lucky few.
The stopover in Breckenridge will focus on sustainability and multi-modal transit options and lodging tax, responding to Airbnb and VRBO among other things.
Colorado's resort problems are Whistler's resort problems. Absolutely, there is value in finding out what the competition is doing, how they are dealing with the persistent problems of resort-town living.
Council's mission is closely linked to the municipality's Economic Partnership Initiative (EPI) work, the in-depth and invaluable body of research that detailed Whistler's economic drivers and ultimately outlined more than 60 recommendations for Whistler to pursue in the short, medium and long term. This trip is meant to contribute to benchmarking (Whistler's uses Aspen and Vail as comparable towns) and planning around Whistler's future competitiveness.
There's no doubt that staying competitive in this ever-changing resort game is all about knowing your competition — what they're up to, what makes them tick, how they overcome challenges.
But there are also valuable lessons to be learned in the delicate dance of public perception — how does this appear to the taxpayer, does it seem frivolous and wasteful? Could the same outcome be accomplished with fewer resources, a tighter budget?
Which begs the question: Why do 13 people need to make the same journey to the same competition to all learn the same lessons?
We can't wait to find out what answers they bring home.
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