There's no denying business is booming in Whistler, and the resort is as busy as it has ever been. But if there was one key message from municipal officials at last week's Corporate Plan Community Forum, it was this: It's not the time to rest on our laurels.
"Whistler has really come into its own," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden at the start of last Wednesday's open meeting at the Audain Art Museum, which welcomed over 100 residents who shared their thoughts on the municipal planning document. "Now, more than ever, we have to bring a spirit of innovation, cooperation and optimism to the table to help our community face some of the issues that we've had for years."
The forum was divided into six tables that each highlighted a different section of the plan: housing, transportation, fire, water use, energy use and climate action, and the tourism economy. Residents had the chance to voice their concerns and offer suggestions to municipal staff and councillors. The most pressing issue for many in attendance centred on housing.
"In Alpine, about 20 to 25 per cent of houses don't seem to be occupied on a regular basis. They're just sitting there empty or maybe once a month you may see vehicles coming in and out," said one Alpine resident. "That's certainly a challenge, especially from a personal standpoint; I was displaced from a fixed-term lease that is no longer being honoured and it's really challenging. I have a six-year-old and can't find a place to live."
One way to curb the problem was suggested by local Mike Sousa was to offer "tax breaks or subsidies" to homeowners who occupy their Whistler house for a minimum number of months a year.
Illegal short-term vacation rentals remained top of mind for many as well, a problem that has plagued communities across the globe struggling to provide affordable accommodation as online booking services like Airbnb grow in popularity. Several questioned why the RMOW wasn't doing more to crack down, but as manager of planning Mike Kirkegaard explained, it's a difficult issue to enforce.
"In the past this has been a complaint-driven policy, and how we move forward with enforcing against that, we need to establish a system for doing that. It's not the easiest thing to prove; you need evidence, you need someone who's rented to come forward and write an affidavit, and there's a whole legal process of going to court," he said. The RMOW is currently working with consultants to get a better handle on the scope of illegal nightly rentals.
Attendees also had some innovative suggestions on how to curb the resort's energy consumption. With passenger vehicles making up 58 per cent of the community's greenhouse gas emissions, one idea that was floated was to bring in electric vehicles to use in a car-sharing program, similar to Car2Go in Vancouver. There was also a push to increase public bus routes and shorten the time it takes to get from one end of town to the other on the Valley Connector route.
Another suggestion would see local transportation companies educate visitors on the drive to Whistler about making environmentally friendly choices during their stay.
"We could have a little video that would play on the ride that completely shows what the whole town is all about, sustainability... and with that an acknowledgement that your choice to walk in town, or ride the bus, really makes an impact," said Sousa.
Pedestrian safety on Highway 99 remains a concern as well.
"For pedestrians, there are a lot of places where you have to walk on the highway. If you're using the bus, you're getting off at a spot that requires you to use the highway either crossing it or walking alongside it," said Sara Jennings. "So just looking at all those access points, whether official or not, we need to look at ways to make those safer."
On the tourism side of things, several residents spoke about the need to preserve the "authenticity" of the Whistler experience, particularly with businesses struggling to retain staff long term.
"I think housing and affordability are issues that are definitely tied into (employee retention) and that's why a lot of our frontline staff are transient and don't have the same passion or knowledge of the community," said local Jeff Slack. "It goes back to authenticity. Obviously there are authentic businesses but there are also authentic interactions, and that's more diffuse and spread throughout peoples' visits here.
"If (employees) can't really express something authentic or true about our community then it cheapens (guests') stay."
Pemberton resident Mo Douglas wondered if the municipality should take more control over the type of businesses coming into the marketplace.
"We're so programmed to believe the free market will sort it all out, but in Whistler there's such a massive investment into the community that I think it would be interesting and quite bold for the municipality to say we're going to take a look at controlling the type of shops that's go into these markets," she said.
You can view and give feedback on Whistler's Corporate Plan at www.whistler.ca/corporateplan.
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