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Commitment made, now we have to figure out what we’re building

Bob Barnett On the surface, it looks like the "right" decision – certainly the popular decision – was made Monday when those elected representatives still attending council meetings voted unanimously to accept the $20 million from

Bob Barnett

On the surface, it looks like the "right" decision – certainly the popular decision – was made Monday when those elected representatives still attending council meetings voted unanimously to accept the $20 million from VANOC for a Paralympic ice arena.

Most councillors seemed to think it was a win-win situation, now that VANOC has promised to try and secure $8 million for Whistler if the ice arena goes to a referendum and the referendum fails. In fact, the $8 million was called a "fallback position" neatly extracted from VANOC by Jim Godfrey, Whistler’s representative on VANOC.

But it’s hardly a fallback position. Two years, three months and 15 days after being awarded the 2010 Olympics – and four months after it came to public attention that Whistler had (since February) been working on a secret deal to send the Paralympic arena to Squamish and negotiating $8 million for a practice arena at Meadow Park – Whistler council on Monday made a commitment to build some sort of multi-use facility that can host the 2010 Paralympic sledge hockey games. Now we can begin the process of trying to decide what the facility should look like, what it should include, what it will cost and how we will pay for any cost in excess of $20 million.

There is some semblance of a safety net: If a referendum on borrowing money to pay for the arena fails, VANOC said it would try and secure $8 million for Whistler. But VANOC doesn’t have an extra $8 million. The money would have to come from the federal and provincial governments, and they haven’t even been asked about it. It’s not a guaranteed $8 million, and even if it was that’s not a fallback position.

So to repeat: On Monday Whistler finally, and to many people’s relief, reaffirmed the commitment it made nearly three years ago to host the Paralympic sledge hockey. We did not sign on for some modern version of Let’s Make a Deal where we can chose from door number one, two or three. The idea that Whistler has several options to pursue is to misunderstand the word "commitment".

There is some sense of relief now that this decision has been made, but to suggest that there was a decision-making process that led to Monday’s conclusion one would need to understand the random theory of chaos. It was, in the end, a decision made under public pressure, with insufficient information and timed to meet an artificial deadline. And if council members voted for it because of the "fallback", "no-risk" position, it was a decision made for the wrong reason.

But since February, when private negotiations with Squamish and VANOC began, it was always going to end up this way. Council, or staff or whoever is running things, didn’t leave themselves enough time to gauge public opinion, to look at factors such as the local economy, to look at anything other than variations on a standard ice rink, or to take a step back and look at what it is Whistler needs.

Councillor Gord McKeever takes credit for bringing the issue of the local economy and the business community’s concerns about losing the arena to council after attending the June Dialogue Cafe on London Drugs and the retail sector. That’s quite astounding when you think about it. After four successive winters of declining business – a cumulative decrease in room-nights of 19 per cent, at a time when the number of hotel rooms continued to grow – the message only resonated when business people raised it at an evening discussion group.

Most Colorado resort towns get a monthly snapshot of their economies through analysis of tax revenues collected on all goods and services sold locally. Whistler doesn’t have, and isn’t likely to get, such taxation powers. But surely there are indexes and measures of the local economy that can be reviewed regularly. One has to wonder why it is that the catalyst for a 180-degree shift in thinking about the arena came from an evening discussion session.

It might be inferred from the above that the arena is the key to Whistler’s economic salvation. Of course it’s not, but if it becomes a multi-use facility that generates activity and animation in the village, and doesn’t hemorrhage obscene amounts of money on an annual basis, it will be a part of what Whistler now hopes to achieve.

And we will have fulfilled our original Paralympic commitment.