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Whistler’s leaders list their top priorities for 2022

Pandemic recovery, regional transit and parks management among items on agenda for elected officials 
regional-transit
Sea to Sky officials have been pushing for a regional transit line that would connect Mount Currie to the corridor and beyond since 2018, but the initiative seems no closer to fruition at this point.

If there were a bingo card listing the pressing issues facing Whistler year after year, chances are it would include housing, labour, climate and affordability. 

But the past two years have added another unavoidable item to the list, one that closely intertwines with all the others.

“All of this has a COVID overlay. We are very much focused on ensuring that we support individuals and businesses to get through this and then recover,” said Mayor Jack Crompton when asked for municipal hall’s top priorities for 2022. “It would be easy to focus 100 per cent of our attention on COVID-19 response, but we’ve worked hard to ensure that we continue to deliver on housing, climate action and community balance as we do that. It’s a fine balance but it’s incredibly important, in my view.” 

As Pique caught up with elected officials at the local, provincial and federal levels to discuss priorities for the coming year, the pandemic was a predictable running theme.

And while many of the same issues remain from this time last year, it’s clear the messaging around COVID-19 has shifted, both from Whistler and Victoria. 

In the first months of 2021, Crompton and the province were urging British Columbians not to visit the resort as the community’s case count rose. As active cases in B.C. skyrocketed to more than 27,000 this week, 80 per cent of which are linked to the highly transmissible but less severe Omicron variant, Crompton was asked why similar messaging wasn’t seen over the busy holiday period. 

“This pandemic moves incredibly quickly and public health [guidance] adjusts to those changes,” he said. “We have vaccinations now; we didn’t then. They are different realities and we then must respond in different ways. I think vaccinations have been a game-changer. People who are vaccinated have much better health outcomes.” 

The Sea to Sky’s federal MP, Liberal Patrick Weiler, echoed the importance of booster vaccines in light of the surging Omicron variant, and said Whistler’s most persistent challenges have to be viewed through that lens. 

“Everything flows from that,” he explained. “That’s why [the federal government has] stepped up with supports, continuing the wage and rent subsidy for businesses … and just providing continued support for people who lose their jobs as a result of lockdown measures.” 

Resort businesses have repeatedly stressed the need for ongoing financial support that doesn’t add to their already bloated debt load, and, with that in mind, Weiler said Ottawa is considering extending the payback period for its Emergency Business Account Loan program beyond its end-of-2022 deadline “to allow businesses more time to recover before they’re to pay any interest on it,” he said. 

Labour 

Shoring up Whistler’s labour supply was another consistent theme for local officials, a years-long issue that BC Liberal MLA and former Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy is worried will turn into a permanent one coming out of the pandemic. 

“The issues from staffing shortages, I’m afraid they will become chronic. We have an acute issue right now that’s been building but certainly COVID, and our reliance on holiday working visas and temporary foreign workers, drove it in a large way,” he said. 

First and foremost, in Sturdy’s mind, is getting a more accurate picture of the Sea to Sky’s labour landscape. Prior to the pandemic, Statistics Canada had committed to providing corridor-specific employment figures, rather than lumping the region in with Greater Vancouver. A push that began in 2014 under former Whistler Chamber of Commerce president Val Litwin, getting a more granular view of the Sea to Sky’s labour numbers would ideally help local leaders drive home how vital foreign worker programs are to the resort. Pre-pandemic, local businesses polled in a chamber survey said less than half of their job applicants were Canadian or held permanent resident status, while 35 per cent of Whistler’s workforce were on working holiday visas. (The survey did not track temporary foreign workers.)  

“It’s very much long overdue,” said Weiler, noting StatsCan is now in consultation over how to distil the corridor-specific labour data, which he expects by the end of the year. He added that Ottawa is currently working on simplifying its temporary foreign worker program down to a two-week processing window, while another federal initiative, the Municipal Nominee Program, is being developed to allow small- and medium-sized communities to “set priorities for the type of immigration they want,” said Weiler. “It can be for economic growth reasons, it could be more for social vibrancy. It could be for a number of different areas.” 

At least 5,000 new permanent resident spaces will be dedicated to the program. 

Housing 

Inextricably linked to Whistler’s labour woes is its ongoing housing shortage, which has seen renewed focus throughout the pandemic from both the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) and local non-profits calling for a strategy that better addresses the community’s wide range of housing needs.

Crompton pointed to the progress made in 2021 as a sign of the municipality’s commitment to affordable housing, with six employee housing projects currently being processed at municipal hall, representing a potential 633 new bed units. The RMOW is now nearing the target it set in 2017 to add 1,000 resident-restricted beds over five years. 

“So far, so good, but a lot more to do,” Crompton said. “As a community, we simply cannot afford to take our eye off the ball as far as housing is concerned. Like everywhere, this is a supply issue and we intend to continue to be a part of the solution.” 

Addressing the underlying factors impacting housing affordability “writ large” is a main priority for the federal government in 2022, Weiler said. Ottawa has proposed several measures aimed at curbing speculation in the market, including everything from a potential ban on blind bidding to a new agency that would target financial crimes such as money laundering.  

“We’re also going to be dealing with the biggest issue in much of the country, which is the lack of supply, by creating some incentives and programs to help municipalities be able to move projects through the zoning process a little bit quicker and to incentivize things like inclusionary zoning,” added Weiler.   

Regional transit 

Since 2018, Sea to Sky officials have made the case for a much-needed regional transit line connecting Mount Currie to the corridor and beyond. The common refrain explaining the holdup has always centred around the program’s funding structure, which would see costs split between local governments, the province and BC Transit. 

These days, however, Sturdy isn’t so sure what’s keeping public buses off the highway. 

“I do not understand the reticence of this government to support everybody who is unanimous in this initiative. We’ve proposed solutions that wouldn’t even cost the province any money, so I don’t understand the problem,” he noted. 

A funding arrangement tabled in 2019, which was ultimately rejected by the province, called for a motor fuel tax of 2.5 cents to help cover the costs. A 2017 study pegged the estimated cost of regional transit at $3.31 million.

“The local government share would be covered by a transit levy on fuel and potentially the provincial share could be covered by the same thing,” Sturdy explained. “They’ve already provided Vancouver with an 18-and-a-half-cent [TransLink] levy and we’re asking for two cents.” 

Crompton referred questions about the holdup to the province, but reiterated that regional transit is “critical to the provincial economy.

“I hope they move quickly on it,” he said. “This is important.” 

Managing recreation demand 

Another knock-on effect of the pandemic has been the explosion in demand for outdoor recreation, something that has been seen both locally and provincially. Visitation to Whistler’s parks this past summer increased 35 per cent from the same period in 2020, and a whopping 77 per cent from 2019. With that and other factors in mind, the RMOW will also continue work on its new Balance Model initiative in 2022, aimed at achieving a more sustainable visitation framework. 

At the province, where BC Parks saw a record 3.1 million visitors in the 2021 season, the approach has variously been to place limitations on park access through things like day passes, pre-booking of campsites, and full-on closures. 

“The strategy these days seems to be: let’s put in barriers, let’s put in fees, let’s prohibit people from accessing things,” Sturdy said. “That’s our way to manage recreation demand and I fundamentally disagree with that approach.” 

Instead, Sturdy is pushing to increase capacity at high-volume sites, an effort he sees helping address spillover into other areas. 

“We saw this up here when they shut down Joffre. What happened was things went crazy at Semaphore [Lake], things went crazy in the Squamish Valley,” he said. “We spread people out all over the place without any social controls. Everybody goes and does whatever the hell they want, whereas if we ran twice as many people through Joffre but we did it well, and people’s experience was excellent, they got to see what they wanted to see and we had the opportunity to educate them and guide that experience, it would be better for everybody.” 

The multimillion-dollar question: is the chronically underfunded and understaffed BC Parks equipped to handle an influx of visitors? 

“No, I don’t think they are at this point,” Sturdy mused. 

Last spring, the B.C. government boosted park funding to $83 million, spread out over three years, a far cry from the $100-million annual budget recreation and environmental groups had pushed for. The money will go towards maintaining park operations, building new park facilities, improving accessibility, protecting park ecology and hiring new staff, the province has indicated. 

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