This year’s B.C. budget offered a mixed bag as it pertains to Whistler, with increases in funding for tourism, housing, health-care and climate initiatives, but still no money on the way for one of the Sea to Sky’s longest-running provincial asks: regional transit.
Overall, the NDP has committed to a total of $81.2 billion in spending for the 2023-24 fiscal year, up from $79.1 billion in last year’s budget, with a particular emphasis on supporting British Columbians following a year of high inflation and rising costs across the board.
With historic investments in housing and active transportation, and pointed emphasis on climate action, emergency response and improving access to health-care, Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton said he was “struck by how closely aligned the provincial budget is with the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s (RMOW) priorities. I don’t say that every year.”
Budget 2023 saw a slight increase in tourism funding compared to last year, to $182 million, a 5.2-per-cent hike. That’s nearly double the 2.65-per-cent bump in spending across all provincial ministries, programs and agencies this fiscal year, which begins April 1.
After several lean pandemic years, the provincial government has set an ambitious target of raising tourism industry revenues by 60 per cent this year, when compared to the $13.46 billion generated in 2021-22.
“Industry revenue is expected to increase as international travel builds toward a return to 2019 levels, but risks include the potential impact of worldwide inflation and ongoing COVID-19 cases as part of travel activity,” the budget read.
While the number of tourism business in B.C. has remained relatively stable since 2019, overnight visitation in 2022 is estimated to be about 80 per cent of 2019 totals.
Even with the industry’s continued recovery, the province warns that tourism is “particularly at risk this year due to world-wide belt-tightening in the face of the rising cost of living,” along with the added challenges around labour shortages, housing affordability and availability hindering tourism operators’ ability to attract and retain staff, and climate-related emergencies “such as fires, floods, and drought” that have “created havoc for an industry that relies on planning weeks or months in advance of travel.”
As a pandemic recovery contingency, the budget allocates $20 million towards a “tourism initiative envelope” intended to support the sector’s ongoing economic recovery efforts for the sector, based on ministry priorities. Last year’s budget dedicated $25 million to this effort.
Housing is a significant focus in this year’s budget, with $4.2 billion through 2025 set aside for investments in housing priorities—the largest three-year housing investment in the province’s history.
That includes nearly $1.7 billion in operating and capital funding over the fiscal plan to help build thousands of homes, and $558 million to increase supports to income and disability assistance clients. That dovetails with a new income-tested tax credit, starting in 2024, that will see moderate- and low-income renters in B.C. eligible for as much as $400 a year. The province said the credit will help more than 80 per cent of B.C. renter households.
The NDP has set a goal of creating 3,000 new housing units every year over the next three years across various housing programs, including those focused on acquisitions. It has earmarked $394 million to acquire lands near transit-oriented developments for new affordable and market rental housing.
The challenge, in B.C. as in Whistler, is getting shovels into the ground. Due to a number of factors, including a lack of skilled labourers and permitting delays at the municipal level, construction can’t seem to keep pace with the demand for new housing.
Estimates in the NDP’s fiscal plan project 39,033 new housing starts in B.C. this year, a 16.5-per-cent decline from 2022. Projections for 2024 are even lower, at 37,037 housing starts.
The RMOW has identified housing as one of its core strategic priorities for the next four years, and as part of that effort, it has two main objectives: develop Whistler’s first-ever long-term housing strategy, and expedite the development of employee housing (see related story on page 14).
“Our community is very much focused on addressing our housing needs and it seems the province is coming to the table in the same way,” Crompton said. “We’ve had many provincially funded housing projects in our community over the years. Our hope is that we’ll see more of the same with investments like this.”
Recognizing the rising demand for health-care services in B.C., the NDP committed $2.6 billion across the health system over the next three years, funding that will, in part, enable additional supports for a growing and aging population, as well as to help address inflationary costs on medical supplies and equipment.
Addressing B.C.’s doctor shortage—an issue that, locally, the Whistler 360 Health Care Collaborative Society has committed to tackling—is another major focus in the 2023 budget. The fiscal plan provides targeted investments of $1 billion over three years to support the provincial health workforce strategy Victoria first announced in September. That strategy will add more doctors, nurses and allied health professionals, with an eye towards optimizing the overall health-care system to better manage workloads, while streamlining entry for health professionals trained outside of Canada.
Over that span, the province said new funding will create training programs and nearly 3,000 new post-secondary training seats, provide nearly 12,000 bursaries and more than 9,000 other training grants. The strategy is expected to create 1,700 new health-care positions in the province, and provide financial incentives for health-care staff to address critical worker shortages.
In January, Whistler 360 partnered with the Whistler Medical Clinic—the resort’s lone remaining family practice—to transition it to a non-profit financial model, with the aim of taking timely administrative duties out of the hands of physicians so they can spend more time on patient care.
The group’s ultimate goal is to establish a community-governed, team-based clinic that will provide longitudinal care to more patients, while addressing many of the issues that discourage physicians from pursuing careers in family practice in the first place.
This year’s budget includes $100 million in new funding to build active transportation networks across the province, the single largest investment in active transportation in B.C.’s history.
The funds, doled out over three years, will go towards improving sidewalks and pathways for pedestrians, installing bike lanes, building multi-use paths in parks for both pedestrians and cyclists, and other related active transportation infrastructure.
The RMOW has pegged active transportation as one of the key strategies to reduce the resort’s carbon emissions in order to meet its ambitious 2030 climate targets. Earlier this year, officials voted to raise municipal parking rates in several locations across Whistler, with the goal of reducing traffic congestion, increasing parking turnover and encouraging more people to use public transit or active modes of transportation.
On the transit front, the province doubled its capital investment for BC Transit, from $110 million to $223 million, but there was little in the way of funding to expand the Crown corporation’s service and no spending dedicated to intra-regional transit, which comes as a sore spot to Sea to Sky officials who have lobbied for such a service connecting Mount Currie to the corridor and beyond.
“I am so enthusiastic about these investments in housing, it feels strange to point to what’s not there, but the lack of investment in regional transit is disappointing,” said Crompton. “That said, we remain in conversation with the province about this and we are getting indications that there’s interest in trying to make something work. They recognize that there’s a problem, which is good.”
The RMOW joins municipalities across B.C. in receiving one-time provincial funding meant to address the needs of their growing communities.
The $1-billion boost will be distributed across B.C.’s 188 municipalities and regional districts, based on a funding formula that reflects population size and growth. Whistler, which saw its permanent population grow by 19 per cent between 2016 and 2021, will receive $4,962,000 through the Growing Communities Fund. Squamish, with a population growth rate of 22 per cent in that same timeframe, will receive $6,285,000, while Pemberton, one of the fastest growing communities in B.C., with a five-year growth rate of 32 per cent, will receive $2,002,000. The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, meanwhile, is set to receive $1,525,000.