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Ignoring the warning signs

The good news from Tourism Whistler’s annual general meeting Saturday was that for the first time in five years visitor numbers were up this past winter.

The good news from Tourism Whistler’s annual general meeting Saturday was that for the first time in five years visitor numbers were up this past winter. But as Tourism Whistler officials reminded the handful of people who attended the meeting, substantial challenges remain ahead – for all of Whistler.

Tourism Whistler and Whistler businesses don’t need to be reminded of the litany of woes that have affected business in Whistler since the new millennium: 9/11, SARS, airline failures, mad cow, economic downturns – the list of external factors beyond our control is long and, by now, monotonous.

At the local government level, external factors are also a source of frustration. Whistler is still waiting for Victoria to approve the business plan for the athletes village, which will eventually become employee housing, and is waiting, hoping (praying?) that Victoria provides some new means of municipal revenue.

But as much as we might like to point the finger at others for our problems, we also have to look in the mirror.

Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 awakened a siege mentality in our most important foreign market and cut the knees out from under the Western economy; before the Enron scandal broke and the dot-com bubble burst in the spring of 2001, there were signs Whistler was headed for trouble. After nearly 15 years of steady, at times spectacular, growth – in construction, room nights sold, skier visits, hotel tax revenue – there were indications of complacency and warnings we did not heed.

On the money front, Whistler’s five year financial plan for 2001 showed contributions to capital reserves for the sewer fund and general fund were not meeting targets.

Other warning signs were less subtle. Allan Fotheringham, who had long been a fan of Whistler, used his Jan. 15, 2001 column in Maclean’s magazine for a lament on Whistler’s decline. The headline on the column was "The bloom is off this rose."

Earlier that same month John MacLachlan Gray, who happily professed he failed to see the appeal of skiing, endured a family vacation in Whistler. While his children skied Gray spent his days wandering the village and the valley and pronounced judgment in the pages of the Globe and Mail.

"Suspicion comes easily in a municipality consisting of 7,000 permanent residents and up to 50,000 visitors at a time. Unlike any village that ever existed, Whistler is a place of extreme transience, in which most interaction takes place on the understanding that, in a few days, the other person will disappear forever."

While no one could foresee the 9/11 catastrophe and its impact on tourism, or the SARS scare of 2003 or the disastrous weather of January 2005, these anomalies hid the fact that Whistler was losing sight of the things that made the town work. We continued to build hotels while the airline industry went through major upheavals and air travel became less appealing. And after a period in the late 1990s when several resident-restricted housing projects were built, the commitment to employee housing softened, with two projects turned down in the spring of 2000 and no new projects built between 2002 and 2005.

With buildout of 52,500 bed units apparently on the horizon our focus turned to protecting the natural environment and preparing for a future with little or no growth. Policy was at the forefront as the Environmental Strategy, the Village Enhancement Strategy, the Cultural Strategy, the Transportation Strategy and the Whistler 2002 vision document, among others, demanded our attention. As one councillor summed up at the time, "We have some great documents."

Meanwhile, Tourism Whistler had ventured off into the Elaho/Stoltmann Wilderness debate.

In recent years we’ve spent a lot of time and energy on the Olympic bid and the comprehensive sustainability plan. While the 2010 Olympics have been awarded, and should provide a huge boost in awareness and opportunities for the resort, we are still waiting for commitments from others but have yet to finalize our own plans for the Paralympic arena and the athletes village.

And there is a feeling – albeit, only a feeling – that some people see the Olympics as an opportunity to cash out of Whistler, rather than an opportunity to re-invest and push things to a new level.

Meanwhile the CSP continues to absorb time and energy, as work continues on the 14 strategies.

Should it be this complicated? The factors that determine "success" in Whistler really haven’t changed over the years: awareness, access, value, weather, service, a stable and reliable workforce.

And the external factors we do need to be aware of include a stronger dollar and increased competition for visitors and labour.

More next week.