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Maxed Out: Whistlerites—fat cats or alley cats?

'Few of us who live here, work here, and raise families here actually earn enough to vacation here...'
The numbers tumbling out of census data paint a picture of Whistlerites being far from fat cats.

Fat cats. Trust-fund babies. High rollers. That seems to be the image of, well, you and me... assuming you’re a local, a Whistleratic.

It’s a view held by many across the country who couldn’t find Whistler without the aid of GPS. Tragically, it’s also the view of more than one office holder in Victoria.

To be fair—not that it’s at all fair—it’s easy to understand where it comes from. All you have to do is read the page next to this one. Or turn it and read the back cover. A two-bedroom quarter share for $339,000. An 800-square-foot, one-bedroom condo for $1.4 million. A building lot for $2.5 million. Fat cats indeed.

Or bear in mind the overarching relationship most people have with Whistler. Jet in for a week’s vacation, drop a bundle on accommodation, another on lift tickets, a third on restaurant meals, jet home, all the while feeling like the budget you’ve blown is chump change to a lot of the folks you’ve seen spending more for a bottle of good wine than you and your family spent for your entire meal.

The reality, of course, is far, far different. Few of us who live here, work here, and raise families here actually earn enough to vacation here, let alone buy anything listed in the real estate ads. We may not be the working poor, but sometimes it sure feels that way.

Bleak? No. The lifestyle we’ve found a way to access without actually being able to afford is hugely compensating. We clock more days on the mountains in any given season than most of the tourists rack up in a lifetime. We enjoy an embarrassment of trails to hike, ride, snowshoe and run all year long. We can cool off on the hottest day in a handful of lakes boasting clean water. We may call it just another day in paradise, but on some level we know that’s exactly what it is. Otherwise, we’d have long ago joined the majority of people who called Whistler home for a good time, not a long time.

But the numbers tumbling out of census data paint a picture of Whistlerites being far from fat cats. More like alley cats. Out of all of us who earn income, almost 79 per cent earn less than $70,000 per year. Gross. Only 12 per cent earn in excess of $100,000 per annum. And even $100K wouldn’t be nearly enough to swing a single-family home in this town without funding from 6/49.

Bleak? Probably. But it gets worse. Almost one-third, 31.7 per cent of us, are in what are considered our prime earning years, age 36 to 54. The closer you’re getting to that second number the closer you are to realizing what you’re earning now is about as good as it’s going to get.

Those numbers are all in the 2021 Census data. I wouldn’t recommend it as bedtime reading if you’re hoping for sweet dreams.

But perception is reality, and the perception of Whistler persists. We’re fat cats. Milch cows. An endless source of income for the provincial government and other entities. And a town that has the audacity to ask for more.

The milkmaid-in-chief has always been the provincial government. Pre-pandemic, provincial tax revenue from tourism was about $1.2 billion dollars. It’s not a stretch to imagine once the covid-related distortions settle down that number will be bigger. But of that total, Whistler’s tax contribution was about $500 million.

While their milk pails overflowed, some of that sloshes back to the town. This year, Whistler expects to receive $5.7 million in Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) funding. That’s where the $4.5 million the RMOW wants to spend renovating Rainbow Park is coming from.

Put into perspective, Whistler sends $5.7 million to Victoria before the end of the first week in January. But we are grateful. And happy to help.

Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) picks up a fair bit of its revenue from those who managed to mangle themselves playing in Whistler, particularly from out-of-country visitors. If you or I get hurt, the likelihood of us paying more than the charge for an ambulance ride is small—MSP, the province’s medical services plan, will cover the rest. But if you’re not from here, the shock you receive when you find out how much it’s going to cost to get fixed might feel worse than your injury.

Yet, for as long as those of us who have lived here the longest can recall, there has always seemed to be a need to fundraise amounts needed for basic infrastructure. The most recent example of this was last year’s new trauma unit opened at the Whistler Health Care Centre. The $1.5-million upgrade was fully funded by the Whistler Health Care Foundation’s largest-ever fundraising campaign. The need for the facility was acute. The funding from VCH—which should meet the needs—was zilch. Fat cats?

For as long as I’ve lived here, and for many years before that, according to those who preceded me, there was a joke about the schools in Squamish having gold-plated water fountains. They didn’t, of course, but the genesis of the joke had to do with the outsized contribution Whistler made to the coffers of School District 48.

Don’t get me wrong. Schools are funded through property taxes, and Whistler’s property-tax base includes all those condos and all those homes owned by people who live elsewhere. As milk cows go, our property tax base is a big herd. And Whistler residents did get a break on school taxes back in 2003 that was not extended to non-resident property owners.

That said, our local school infrastructure has always lagged behind the needs of the school-age population, a condition that exists to this day. Whistler desperately needs a new school to keep up with the kids being spawned in town. The lack of one has repeatedly been cited as a significant factor in continuing to permit Whistler’s Waldorf School to operate at Spruce Grove instead of that community facility being available for the purposes it was intended. When asked, it has always been pointed out there is no room within Whistler’s existing schools to absorb the 150-plus students at Waldorf, not that anyone’s suggesting that.

But with significant indications the Whistler Racket Club may have to look for a new home once the Northlands begins to be developed, it would be nice to have the purpose-built recreation and community hub of Spruce Grove available as a site. And it would be nicer to have the local school district’s help.

Heck, I’m not even sure we still put drinking fountains in public schools anymore.