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Maxed Out: Whistler’s money engine needs a tune-up

'Dear Jack, er, Your Worship:'
'Once again, Whistler was left by the punch bowl without a dance partner.'

Dear Jack, er, Your Worship:

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. Okay, to be accurate, since my mother shuffled off this mortal coil, I am a motherless child, er, adult. Okay, senior, if you want to be pedantic about it. Regardless.

Sometimes I feel like Whistler is a motherless child. I know my summertime neighbours up in the Cariboo would bristle if I said that to them. So I don’t. Fact is, I fudge the answer when they ask where I live in the winter. There are still a lot of folks up here driving beat-up pickups over woefully potholed roads who remember the province spending $600 million to spruce up the Sea to Sky highway so the Olympians and especially the IOC oligarchs didn’t get too jostled driving up to Tiny Town in 2010.

But back to being a motherless child. Whistler was conceived by a bunch of loopy businessfolk from Vancouver who wanted to host an Olympics. But in a very real sense, it was birthed by the provincial government, which perceived the benefit of bailing out the nascent town when interest rates went crazy in the early 1980s. If the government hadn’t stepped up, who knows where we’d be today? Probably not where we are.

It’s important to note the province hit the jackpot when it rescued Whistler from financial ruin. Not only did it make a tidy return on its investment from the land it got to develop north of the village, but Whistler sends oodles of tax revenue its direction each and every day.

So, last Wednesday, May 30, I eagerly awaited word on the 10 communities that would win the first round of the newest provincial housing lottery. As they counted down the names, my hopes dimmed and finally went out. Jeez, Jack, we didn’t even get Miss Congeniality. Nada. Zilch. Zip.

Minister of Housing Ravi Kahlon prefaced his remarks saying, “The housing crisis is hurting people and holding back our economy, and we’re taking action with our partners to cut red tape and get homes built faster for people. Municipalities are our critical partners in addressing the housing crisis and building healthy, economically viable communities. Our government is eager to work with this first cohort of municipalities to get shovels in the ground faster and ensure the homes people need get built.”

Once again, Whistler was left by the punch bowl without a dance partner.

Not to take anything away from the 10 cities chosen, all of which I’m sure have, like most of the rest of Canada, a crying need for more housing, I’m wondering whether Minister Kahlon was never read, or read himself, Aesop’s fable about the goose
who laid the golden eggs.

I have neither the knowledge nor the interest to research the contribution the various chosen cities make to the provincial coffers—and I suspect their selection may have  more to do with rampant nimbyism and local red tape—but I’m well aware of the outsized flow of funds Whistler sends to Victoria from tourism dollars collected here.

Let’s put this in perspective. In 2021, tourism generated a direct contribution to the province’s gross domestic product of $5 billion. That was more than forestry and logging, more than oil and gas, more than agriculture and fishing. More, more, more.

Tourism employed more than 84,000 people that year, supporting more than 16,500 businesses and generating $13.5 billion in revenue.

Pre-pandemic—and there’s no reason to believe as things “normalize” this will significantly change—Whistler accounted for a greater percentage of tourism revenue than anywhere else in B.C…. by a long shot. Our golden eggs popped out daily and rolled their way to Victoria.

So maybe you’d think the housing minister—who said upfront the housing crisis was holding back the provincial economy—may have taken Whistler’s financial contribution into account when he was establishing the program’s, “empirical index ... based on work with economists and experts in the field,” and determining who made the short list. I mean, otherwise we surely met their criteria with regards to, “the urgency of local housing needs, the availability of the right housing supply, including land availability and unrealized potential for more homes, and housing affordability.” And more importantly, the town has the capacity to not only keep generating that income, but increase it significantly. Eh?

We have the need, we don’t have the right housing supply, have available land, potential for more homes, and boy do we ever have unaffordable housing. So what’s the problem? Is it because we’re not a city like the rest of them? Are we too small? Perceived to be too wealthy? Simply ignored... at their peril?

If Whistler was a car the minister owned, he’d probably take it into a garage and say, “it doesn’t seem to be hitting on all cylinders,” or whatever he might say if he owned a sluggish EV. Whistler’s money engine isn’t operating at full capacity. The town’s businesses are hamstrung by a lack of employees. For all the inroads the Resort Municipality of Whistler, Whistler 2020 Development Corp., and Whistler Housing Authority have made creating employee housing, we’re losing employees almost as fast as we’re housing them. They’re opting to move to other towns where they can afford housing. Our loss is Terrace’s, and other communities’, gain. We’re treading water. Expensive water.

Even our “affordable” housing is becoming unaffordable because of the hat trick of higher interest rates, rising labour costs and escalating construction material prices. It’s been decided we’ll continue to build, regardless of cost, because we can’t afford not to. I won’t argue the point, but I will say it would all be a lot easier if the province could see its way to pony up an additional few million bucks per building to help defray the costs and make them affordable to the town’s critical employees.

There’s going to be another 10 municipalities selected later this year. I’m hoping you can help the minister and others in Victoria see the benefit of shovelling an extra $20 million or so to Whistler’s effort to keep the goose laying those golden eggs.

Otherwise, I fear our noble experiment in employee housing—social housing—will have to start seeking direct subsidies from the town’s taxpayers. Which isn’t such a
bad idea, since all their homes have increased dramatically in value as this town has
become more successful and that success rests on a foundation of having enough workerbees to lure new visitors and keep all of them coming back.

Not to mention the minister’s program is way more likely to rack up big successes here than trying to convince the nimbys in West Vancouver to accept more density.

Your humble servant,