Why Whistler? What brought you to choose to live in Whistler? What keeps you here? What would make you decide to move somewhere else? If you’ve been living in Whistler for a decade or two and think back to what brought you to Whistler, would you be moving here now, given the way the town has developed?
These are more than just interesting questions to ask each other over a refreshing beverage, a nice dinner or a chairlift ride. They are the kinds of questions that illuminate the past, help explain the arc of growth and development and foreshadow the future. They are, at their root, the questions that will drive your thinking about what is being called the Whistler Sessions. More about that later.
Whistler is a unique place. While acknowledging and respecting those who came before—the First Nations that lay claim to the territory upon which the town has been built, the pioneers who trekked up from Vancouver to homestead, farm, log, mine and create early tourism opportunities in what would become the town of Alta Lake—Whistler itself is a recent invention, born in the 1960s from the dream of a handful of Vancouver businesspeople to create a ski resort to host a Winter Olympics.
If they’d chosen a different location or simply come to their senses and blown the whole idea off as a wacky pipe dream, none of us would be here today pondering the future of our town. Whistler would likely still be Alta Lake and would likely be a small town on the road to somewhere else.
For better or worse, Whistler is the centre of gravity in the Sea to Sky corridor, and the biggest card in the province’s deck of revenue-generating tourism destinations.
But what of the future? Decisions being pondered—or ignored—right now will set the stage for what the town will be like in the future.
Much of Whistler’s history, like its origin, has been decided ad hoc, which is to say, without understanding the long-term implications of actions taken. Early in the town’s development, planners recognized the vital importance of the resort having warm beds available for the tourists they hoped would come. Condo developments with restrictive covenants were built and sold to individuals who had limited rights on personal use. That step primed the development pump, but had future implications for rapid growth.
When the nascent town narrowly avoided bankruptcy in the early 1980s, it came at a cost of future land development rights negotiated by the province in return for bailing the town out. What was supposed to be a decade-long development of Village North and Marketplace happened, instead, in the blink of an eye.
Around the turn of this century, council of the day approved a wholesale redevelopment of Creekside.
Both of those events gave rise to a tsunami of new tourist accommodation. Since much of that accommodation was in the form of personally owned condos with restrictive covenants, the developers themselves had no stake in whether or not they were occupied by tourists. They pocketed their profit from simply completing the project. It was up to someone else to put heads in beds.
And for decades, that was the driving metric behind many of the decisions made by councils of the day. Drive tourism. Put those heads in beds.
Which, naturally, gave rise to the ancillary businesses catering to those tourists—retail stores, restaurants, entertainment and services needed by the growing full-time population who owned and/or worked in those businesses. And that led to the need for more and more workerbees. And that led to the need for more and more housing for those workers.
And that led to where we are today. Pondering the future.
The future has landed hard in the past week. The Resort Municipality of Whistler’s Housing Action Plan was released on May 16, and states up front, “policies and actions to meet housing needs must focus primarily on supporting Whistler’s workforce.”
The workforce to be housed is the workforce necessary to meet the ever-growing demand of Whistler’s businesses.
One of the keys to meeting current, and presumably future housing needs, is the development of a long-term housing strategy. Almost buried in the explanation of that is the statement, “the strategy may result in the contemplation of future OCP amendments.”
Would one of those amendments be either lifting the existing bed unit cap or simply excluding employee housing from it, as it was excluded in the past? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t include a limit or moratorium on business development.
Handily, that brings us back to the Whistler Sessions, and the question of what the town looks like as we march toward 2050. There were two sessions held at the library on May 25 for interested people to come hear about and discuss the various scenarios.
The mayor has invited you to “use these scenarios creatively; host a discussion night with friends, write a short story or contemplate how the scenarios may influence your day-to-day.” And, presumably, let him and council know what you think since this is the future you may end up living... or leaving.
You can access the four Whistler Sessions scenarios on the municipal website, and there are handy guides to hosting a workshop to discuss them with your friends, contemplate them in your spare time, scare the pants off you thinking about some of them or in other ways, enlighten yourself and get involved.
The scenarios themselves include a free-market run amok called the Sky’s the Limit, that creates a dystopia of greed, wealth and the development of Whistler as a Mountain City.
The Weather the Storm scenario invites us to all join in and create a sustainable, net-zero, kumbaya future where we all fit in and don’t destroy ourselves in the process.
Growing Divide relies on a twist of compassionate conservatism in which wealthy philanthropists will create their own version of paradise and house workerbees in “out of town, high-density, dorm-style housing.”
And From the Ashes is a post-apocalyptic rebuilding of the town following a complete collapse. A do-over, if you will.
While in no way downplaying the importance of this effort, I take some solace in the fact I’ll not likely live long enough to see which scenario wins in the end. But you might, and if I were you, I’d be right in the thick of this. I probably will be anyway, but this is the future of many of you here now and hopefully many more to come.