Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Jumbo still faces big hurdles

By on Tue, Mar 27, 2012 at 1:13 PM

Last week’s approval of a master development agreement for the proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort in the Kootenays generated predictable support from the business community and outrage from opponents.

But is Jumbo really any closer to becoming the first four-season ski area in North America?

Skeptics may recall that a master development agreement for Al Raine’s proposed Cayoosh ski resort between Pemberton and Lillooet was also approved several years ago. In the face of opposition from First Nations and the legal limbo that surrounds Crown land and Aboriginal title in British Columbia, nothing has happened since.

Proponents of Jumbo claim to have the support of the Kinbasket Shuswap First Nation. The Ktunaxa First Nation, however, is vehemently opposed.

While opponents and proponents battle it out in the Kootenays, generating headlines for the foreseeable future, there are several other underlying stories. The first being a provincial government, sinking in the polls and desperate to build support among the business community, trumpeting the announcement of the master development agreement. Last week’s approval came after more than 20 years of reviews, and about a year ahead of the next provincial election.

A related story is the provincial government’s latest five-year tourism strategy, released last fall and titled Gaining The Edge. It identifies the major trends in tourism, the obstacles holding back tourism in B.C. and some general steps to reduce those barriers (leadership through partnership and coordination; strategic marketing; world class visitor experiences).

Gaining The Edge quotes Premier Christy Clark as saying “British Columbia will become North America’s No. 1 ski destination.” That’s an ambitious but perhaps achievable goal, and Jumbo may be part of it. But if that is the goal it’s going to require a lot more detailed strategy than just building new resorts.

The absolute number of skiers and boarders has been more or less stagnant for years. Attracting more of that stagnant market to B.C. means stealing skier visits from other provinces, states and countries. The most obvious target would be Colorado, which drew more than 12 million skier visits in 2010-2011. But Colorado wouldn’t give up its market share easily. It knows better than most jurisdictions how important skiers are to the state’s economy, and has a well-established marketing plan to ensure the flow continues.

Gaining The Edge talks about focused marketing for B.C. but skiing and snowboarding is just one of six “products” to be marketed. If the premier is serious about making B.C. North America’s No. 1 ski destination more money, as well as more focus, is needed for marketing.

Part of the reason for that is because B.C. — and particularly Jumbo — is a long way away from most North Americans. One of Colorado’s advantages, as far as the North American market goes, is it’s in the centre of the continent. B.C. is in the upper left corner, many miles further from the densely populated eastern seaboard.

B.C.’s geographic advantage is its proximity to the huge California market and to Asia. California — and Oregon and Washington — have been strong, steady markets for Whistler for years. But getting to the interior of British Columbia is more of a challenge than getting to Whistler.

Gaining The Edge talks about reducing the barriers to travel to B.C., including more direct air access for Asian countries. That’s a theme the provincial Liberals have been harking on for a few years. To date, however, the federal Conservatives have been mostly unresponsive.

As far as building Jumbo, the proponent’s plan calls for three phases of construction over 20 years. They predict $15-$20 million per year in construction for 20 years. Media reports have put the total cost of the resort at $900 million.

Financing the development is where the numbers start to become questionable. At buildout there would be 5,500 bed units (plus 750 employee beds) and 20-23 lifts. For the past 20 years ski area operators have said that ticket sales alone can’t finance modern high-speed lifts. Real estate sales are what have made investments in lifts possible.

To grossly over-simplify the Jumbo proposal, $900 million divided by 5,500 bed units means you would need about $163,000 per bed unit. If a hotel room is two bed units, the average cost of a strata-titled hotel room would have to be about $326,000.

And who is going to buy vacation property at Jumbo? Albertans perhaps... But Revelstoke still has some real estate for sale — including single-family lots with their own helicopter landing pads, relics from a bygone era. Red Mountain at Rossland is also selling real estate, so is Kicking Horse…

As for ongoing operating revenues and expenses, Jumbo proponents estimate the ski area will attract 2,700 skiers per day, on average. A busy day on Whistler Blackcomb would be 25,000 skiers.

Proponents predict Jumbo will generate $12 million in tax revenue annually for all levels of government. Whistler claims to generate $376 million in annual government revenues.

The numbers, the politics, the geography all suggest Jumbo is a long way from becoming a reality.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Council's Action Plan signals new direction

By on Thu, Feb 23, 2012 at 12:07 PM

The headlines coming out of Tuesday’s council meeting were, rightfully, all about the fact that Whistler taxpayers will not see property taxes increased this year, for the first time in a decade.

And not insignificantly, utility fees — which have also climbed steadily in recent years — will also be kept at current levels.

But beyond the good tax news, Tuesday’s meeting signaled the first substantive steps by the new council to reflect the seismic change residents voted for last November.

The measures are outlined in the Council Action Plan http://www.whistler.ca/sites/default/files/council_action_plan_2012-2014-1.pdf, a 12-page document that lists general priorities for the next three years and timelines to accomplish them.

Among the priorities are:
• an economic development strategy
• initiating a draft cultural plan
• advancing the post-secondary education initiative
• working towards an improved special occasion liquor licence system
• expanding sport tourism in Whistler
• supporting the advancement of the Spearhead Hut initiative
• reviewing and monitoring customer service levels
• updating the municipal communications and engagement strategy

There is considerable focus on financial issues, which again reflects voters’ concerns. There are plans to “revitalize” the annual financial planning process, including providing more accessible financial reporting and accountability and quarterly updates.

The decision to “pursue” an economic development strategy over the next 12 months is a notable direction change from the previous council. Not that there was a bias against economic development, but there was a sentiment that Whistler is in the tourism business and economic development should be limited to tourism-related businesses or those that complement tourism. Trying to attract high-tech companies to Whistler, for example, was not a priority.

The brief notes under “Pursue Economic Development Strategy” indicate that the effort will be led by the Chief Administrative Office and the Resort Experience Division. The plan is to engage key resort partners to undertake an economic planning review, review roles and individual agency plans, and “ensure alignment of organizations (i.e. WB, Chamber, TW & RMOW).” This last point may prove interesting, as some of these organizations were firmly of the belief that Whistler should remain in the tourism business.

Interestingly, considering the emphasis on financial issues, in the newly restructured municipal hierarchy the finance department has moved under the umbrella of Corporate and Community Services, which is led by Bob MacPherson.

MacPherson is one of a trio of veteran department heads that report to Chief Administrative Officer Mike Furey. The others are Jan Jansen, head of Resort Experience, and Joe Paul, acting head of Infrastructure Services.

The smaller Communications, Legal Services and Human Resources departments report directly to Furey.

The full organizational chart is in the Council Action Plan.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Olympic Games then and now

By on Tue, Feb 14, 2012 at 11:45 AM

It was two years ago this week that the 2010 Winter Olympics opened in Vancouver, on Feb. 12.

Tomorrow, Feb. 15, is the deadline for candidates to submit official bids for the 2020 Summer Olympics, and this morning the shaky state of the economy whittled the field of candidates down by one.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti announced today that Rome’s bid for the 2020 Games has been scrapped. Monti said the Italian government can’t afford to guarantee the financing of the Games.

“We arrived at this unanimous conclusion that the government didn’t feel it was responsible to assume such a guarantee in Italy’s current condition,” Monti said.

Monti’s government is imposing austerity measures as the country tries to reign in its public debt and get its financial situation under control.

The remaining candidates for the 2020 Summer Olympics are expected to be Madrid, Istanbul, Doha, Tokyo and Baku, Azerbaijan, although Spain is also facing severe economic problems and high unemployment. And today Reuters reported that the European Union is likely to take action against Spain for delaying austerity measures.

The socialist government of Jose Luis Zapatero approved the Spanish 2020 Olympic bid last July but the new conservative government of Mariano Rajoy may have second thoughts.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Soane lands at Nita Lake Lodge

By on Fri, Feb 3, 2012 at 1:27 PM

Roger Soane, former general manager of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and current chair of Tourism Whistler, has landed at the Nita Lake Lodge.

The Nita Lake Lodge announced Soane’s appointment as general manager on Thursday.

“Nita Lake Lodge is a true gem in Whistler and perfectly positioned to become the number one boutique hotel in Canada with a reputation for tailored experiences and leading hospitality,” Soane said in a release.

Soane left the Fairmont Chateau Whistler last year after nearly three years at the helm. He came to Whistler from Victoria, where he managed Fairmont’s Empress Hotel and was chair of Tourism Victoria.

Originally from London, England, Soane spent the first 16 years of his career as a chef, becoming an executive chef with Pan Pacific Hotels and Resorts before moving into senior management. He has worked in the hotel industry in Europe, Asia, North America and the Caribbean.

Pique app is back

The Pique app for iPhones is working once again.

The app ceased to work when we moved to our new website in late November. Diligent work by Chris Armstrong in Whistler and the crew at Desert Net in Tucson have got the app working with the website again.

Look for further improvements in the months ahead.

Monday, January 23, 2012

X Games questions

By on Mon, Jan 23, 2012 at 11:30 AM

With Whistler council presumably deep into the zero-based budgeting process, including no increases in property taxes (two of Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden’s 10 recommendations during last fall’s campaign), the new council is about to run into its first big budget decision: pony up as much as $2 million to bring the X Games to town or pass.

Exactly what the figure will be has yet to be determined, but it’s likely the money would come from RMI funds, the annual mystery allotment from the provincial government for tourism-related projects.

The new council’s decision comes down to whether spending RMI funds on the X Games, or X Fest as it would be known once integrated into the World Ski and Snowboard Festival in the April timeslot, is a good use of that money.

Whistler Blackcomb and Tourism Whistler have decided the X Games would be a good fit for Whistler. They’ve agreed to commit $500,000 annually to the project. Another $2 million is expected from sponsorship sales. Assuming sponsorship targets could be reached that would still leave a $2.5 million gap. Federal and provincial governments, along with the RMOW, will be asked to help fill it.

The success of the Winter X Games in Aspen is apparently beyond challenge. Aspen has hosted them for a decade and in 2011 the X Games drew more than 114,000 people, making it the Colorado town’s second busiest week, after Christmas.

Now ESPN, producers of the X Games, is expanding the series. From one winter and one summer X Games to three each season. ESPN is taking bids for three-year commitments to host, starting in 2013.

The lure, for Whistler, is the 24 hours of live broadcasting that come with the X Games, as well as the opportunity to leverage ESPN’s Internet media platform. Integrating the X Games into the 10-day World Ski and Snowboard Festival and its cultural events would also continue WSSF’s 17-year tradition of evolving and growing the festival.

The few details that have been released to date sound promising, but before Whistler council commits potentially millions of dollars to the project some more questions should be answered. Such as:

• with three winter X Games instead of one is the value of the coverage Aspen gets going to be reproduced in Whistler? In April?

• are the X Games going to fill more hotel rooms, in April?

The World Ski and Snowboard Festival has successfully extended the winter season into April, drawing visitors and creating a buzz when previously few people were thinking about Whistler. Melding the X Games and WSSF could be the next phase in that evolution, but it looks like it’s going to require a big cash outlay and the incremental increase in business and exposure has yet to be fully quantified.

Recall that in the mid-90s after guaranteeing a loan of several million dollars for snowmaking Whistler secured a three-year commitment to host early-season World Cup downhill races, based substantially on the assumption that early-season coverage of ski races in Whistler would generate awareness and boost bookings through the winter. That theory was never really tested because all three events were wiped out by weather.

However, the X Games seem to be operating under the same premise as the World Cup: if Whistler puts up some money the organizers will deliver media exposure and fill rooms.

The formula may work with the X Games, where it didn’t with the World Cup. But at a time when participatory events like the Whistler Half Marathon and the RBC Whistler GranFondo are bringing thousands of people to town who are willing to pay their own way the X Games model needs to prove its value.

You can check out the winter X Games on TV and the Internet this weekend.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tourism industry still waiting

By on Mon, Jan 16, 2012 at 1:10 PM

In 2004, during the heady pre-Olympic, pre-recession days, then-Premier Gordon Campbell challenged the province’s tourism industry to double in size — to $18 billion — by 2015.

Last fall the government of Premier Christy Clark updated the province’s 2007 Tourism Action Plan, producing a new five-year strategy designed to help the industry reach $18 billion by 2016. (According to the Tourism Industry Association of B.C., tourism generated $13.4 billion in revenue in 2010.)

Among the promises made by Premier Clark were that “British Columbia will become North America’s No. 1 ski destination.”

The tourism industry in B.C. has gone through a number of changes in recent years, including the sudden assimilation of the formerly independent Tourism BC into the Ministry of Tourism six months before the 2010 Olympics. And, of course, the financial meltdown of 2008 and the sputtering recovery of the last three years have hurt tourism everywhere.

Clark and the Liberals have been heavily committed to tourism, one of the main benefits of hosting the 2010 Olympics, we were told. But with tourism numbers stagnating, the Liberals reassessed the industry and its strategy last fall. Among the key points of the updated strategy:

• B.C.’s strategic location relative to Asia and the need for improved air service;

• the shift to shorter, less expensive vacations;

• a need to respond to potential future labour shortages.

The province then committed to removing barriers to industry growth. These promises include improving the timelines of Crown land-use decisions; enhancing the Small Business Venture Capital Program tax credit; promoting the expansion of passenger pre-clearance at air, marine and land borders; and working with air carriers to identify opportunities to develop and expand service.

Unfortunately, there was no mention of streamlining liquor laws.

However, the province’s efforts to grow tourism run up against the federal government’s apparent disinterest. In 2006 the Conservative government created a Federal Tourism Strategy Framework. That was updated to a Federal Tourism Strategy and Action Plan in 2008. It melded with the Conservatives’ Economic Action Plan of 2009 and 2010, which largely meant funding for tourism events, including Kokanee Crankworx and the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival in 2010.

Among the feds’ “priorities for immediate action” in 2008 were improving border crossings to ensure the efficient flow of tourists to and from Canada. Last month Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama announced the Beyond the Border Action Plan, which is expected to simplify and streamline the process of crossing the border while also providing greater security to both countries. Full details have yet to be announced.

The Federal Tourism Strategy and Action Plan also emphasized the need for transportation policies and programs that “take into consideration national, provincial/territorial, and regional tourism economic benefits.” This includes “the ability of tourists to travel to and within Canada.”

Attracting more flights, particularly from Pacific Rim countries, has been a priority of B.C. governments for some time, as evidenced by the International Open Skies Summit in Vancouver in September 2009. Last fall’s provincial tourism strategy reaffirmed improved air access to and within B.C. as a key priority.

But opening up more air routes is a federal responsibility, one that the Conservatives have yet to show much interest in.

True, the federal government is working on a number of trade agreements, including a Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Canada-European Union trade agreement, bilateral negotiations with India, South Korea and other countries. But the Harper government seems to favour more complex, time-consuming, comprehensive trade deals rather than negotiating individual aspects of international relations, such as Open Skies.

Which leaves the tourism industry in B.C. waiting…

Friday, December 16, 2011

'Justice' may prove elusive

By on Fri, Dec 16, 2011 at 1:20 PM

Interesting announcement this week that the sled dog operation at the centre of the alleged 2010 dog massacre in Whistler has been turned over to a not-for-profit foundation dedicated to improving animal welfare.

The Sled Dog Foundation, and other sled dog companies in B.C., will undoubtedly operate under closer scrutiny in the years ahead. Outrage after the allegations became public led to new provincial regulations for all sled dog operators, which should only be good for the dogs.

But anyone expecting “justice” for the dogs destroyed in the spring of 2010 — an expectation fuelled by the SPCA — may be disappointed.

There haven’t been any charges laid 11 months after the allegations came to light. Considering the first charges in the Stanley Cup riot have only recently been laid, and last spring’s investigation of the sled dog site in the Soo Valley had to wait until the snow melted, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

But neither should we be surprised if there never are any charges laid.

Remember: all the gruesome details that have shocked and horrified people around the world have come from one source, the man who claims to have killed the animals inhumanely and then sought compensation from WorkSafe BC for his mental anguish.

The investigation, led by the SPCA, unearthed the remains of more than 50 dogs in a mass grave. The leaked WorkSafe BC documents suggested there were up to 100 dogs killed.

Autopsies were done on the animals over the summer and in September the SPCA reportedly turned over tens of thousands of pages of evidence to the Crown, with a recommendation that cruelty charges under the criminal code be pursued.

The SPCA’s findings, based on their excavation of the grave site and autopsies done more than a year after the killings, may indeed prove that the dogs were killed in inhumane ways. But it’s going to be quite a bit more difficult to prove who did the killing.

A WorkSafe BC claim is not a confession. And as far as we know, there were no witnesses.

So 11 months later, with the graphic allegations as strong in people’s minds as the demand for justice, we are still left wondering what exactly happened out in the Soo Valley.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Tight timeline for municipal budget

By on Fri, Dec 9, 2011 at 12:33 PM

In her inaugural address after being sworn in as mayor Tuesday, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden quoted a French author and former member of the Resistance, Stéphane Hessel, who wrote: “If you spend a little time searching, you will find reasons to engage. The worst attitude is indifference.”

The new mayor went on to say that “Whistler and engagement are synonymous.” And certainly Whistlerites were engaged in this year’s municipal election.

One of the biggest issues in the election, one that contributed to an unprecedented level of voter turnout, was municipal spending. In other words, the budget.

The 2012 municipal budget must be adopted by the end of April. Wilhelm-Morden has asked municipal staff to present briefing notes on the budget to the new council before Christmas, and to present a budget timetable at the first council meeting of the New Year, which could be Jan. 3. She has also promised a “meaningful public consultation process” on the budget.

On the surface it would appear that four months is plenty of time to review and approve a budget, and no doubt it will get done. But consider:

• the mayor has called for a zero-based budget process, which means reviewing absolutely everything;

• the municipality is operating with an interim director of finance;

• by mid-December 2010 the municipality had already held its second public open house on the 2011 budget.

On top of this there are six newly-elected councillors, all of whom have dealt with budgets in their respective pasts but all are new to municipal government.

Given these parameters, when the opportunity comes for public engagement in the 2012 municipal budget, Whistlerites had better be ready. It’s going to be a tight timeline.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A new era for Whistler

By on Tue, Dec 6, 2011 at 1:13 PM

A new era begins in Whistler tonight with the swearing in of the new council — all-new, in television-speak.
The firsts for this council have been noted frequently since the Nov. 19 election: it was the first Whistler municipal election where no incumbents were returned to office and Nancy Wilhelm-Morden is Whistler’s first female mayor.
The all-new council may hold its first real meeting tomorrow.
Last month’s vote totals show the Whistler electorate overwhelmingly rejected the incumbent council members, delivering a strong mandate for change. Presumably.
And yet, radical changes are unlikely. Mayor-elect Wilhelm-Morden has promised no property tax increases in 2012. She’s promised to “fix” the public transit system and “work towards restoring the trust between the community and municipal hall.” Goals most of the candidates, including the new councillors, could agree on.
Wilhelm-Morden also feels Whistler is in a pretty good position, with Rainbow and Cheakamus Crossing meeting the demands for resident housing and other Olympic infrastructure providing new opportunities for the community.
As well, municipal reserve funds, which were depleted by capital spending in the years leading up to the Olympics, are being rebuilt.
So what is the change that voters were so desperate for? Undoing pay parking? Closing the asphalt plant?
Getting rid of both would make some people happy, but as issues they are more symbolic than fundamental to Whistler.
The way the last council — and municipal hall — dealt with pay parking and the asphalt plant is where change is expected. A little more empathy, a little better communication and a little less of the “we know best” attitude that seemed to emanate from municipal hall in recent months are some of the changes people are looking for.
And with a new chief administrative officer installed, the new council has an opportunity to effect these sorts of changes.
Welcome the new council into office tonight at 5:30 at Millennium Place. And then keep in touch with them; communication is a two-way street.

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