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Paranoia and holding hands

Maybe I got in line twice when they were handing out paranoia but it seems to me there are signs out there suggesting Whistler should be preparing for significant change, and we seem to be meandering along in a business-as-usual mode.

Maybe I got in line twice when they were handing out paranoia but it seems to me there are signs out there suggesting Whistler should be preparing for significant change, and we seem to be meandering along in a business-as-usual mode.

One of those signs appeared last week with the announcement that, for the first time ever, Whistler’s hotel tax reserve will have a negative balance in 2006. In other words we’ve spent (or allocated) $2.1 million more than the hotel tax is bringing in.

The hotel tax, of course, is one of the best indicators Whistler has to show how we’re doing in our main business, tourism. Projections are hotel tax revenue will be down to $2.9 million in 2006, the fifth straight year revenue has declined.

While there are ongoing efforts to rebuild the tourism business, including providing Tourism Whistler with more money for marketing, the RMOW’s position through most of the five-year decline in hotel tax revenue has remained the same: Whistler needs new financial tools. There may be a plan B – cutting spending? – but for now our strategy is to continue to hope politicians get the message Whistler needs a larger chunk of the hotel tax. We sit by the tree, staring at Victoria, waiting for Gord-O.

Another sign that our little world may be in for a change is the strategic review currently underway at Whistler-Blackcomb’s parent company, Intrawest. The review, including the appointment last week of Alex Wasilov to the new position of president and chief operating officer, comes as the largest single shareholder in the company pushes to see the stock reach its "true value" of about $45 a share. That sort of price, up from its current value of about $32, would bring that shareholder, Pirate Capital LLC, a $125 million profit.

At this point there’s not too much Whistler can do about any of the internal pressures or decisions at Intrawest, other than realize the landscape could change and be prepared for it.

We should also recognize that Whistler is not the only place in the universe when it comes to resorts and the people who have an interest in them. That would include people who book conventions, people looking for investment in recreational real estate and families looking for weekend getaways, to name a few.

You don’t have to go far to realize there are resort communities across the province looking for the same people Whistler once had a monopoly on. It’s not just Sun Peaks, Fernie and other ski areas that Whistler is competing with now, it’s places like the Strand Lakeside Resort in Vernon, Bear Mountain Resort on Vancouver Island and Ruby Lake Resort on the Sunshine Coast. Most of these places are newer and cheaper than Whistler. They don’t all offer skiing and snowboarding, but they are competing for the same visitors and part-time residents/taxpayers we are.

These places are also competing with Whistler for employees. Much has been written about the shortage of skilled labour in the construction industry, but unemployment in B.C. is at a 30-year low and there is a shortage of skilled labour in just about every industry.

In the big-picture perspective, combine these factors with the booming economy in debt-free, low-tax Alberta that is siphoning workers away and a federal immigration department that is 30 years behind the times and we have reason to take notice. Add in the fact that Whistler built exactly zero new employee housing units in the last three years (although there will be new housing for next winter) and the level of interest should go up a notch or two.

Then came word this week that Telus is using the World Ski and Snowboard Festival to look for prospective employees.

Maybe we should think about that. The second largest telecommunications company in the country is coming to Whistler to recruit employees.

Meanwhile, we hear more and more stories of Whistler business owners looking for opportunities to sell and get out of town. Perhaps tellingly, to date there haven’t been many buyers.

Of course not everyone is sitting around waiting for things to happen. The Squamish Chamber of Commerce has signed on to help deliver the new PEAK retail skills training program developed by Retail B.C. and the federal and provincial governments. And a group of business people has organized the first Whistler Wellness Week at the end of the month, attempting to broaden Whistler’s scope into the health and wellness market.

But more needs to be done. And the biggest problem Whistler may face is that some people want to make changes but they don’t know where to go or how to start.

Nearly 11 years ago, just prior to Whistler’s second annual townhall meeting, the municipality brought in Myles Rademan, Park City’s director of public affairs. Rademan, a student of resort towns and a consultant to many, including Whistler, suggested back then that keeping a resort town going takes more work than building it.

"Once you lose the entrepreneurial drive that created this place, can you maintain the energy to keep the community going?" Rademan asked.

"From our experience," he said, "the only wisdom is the wisdom of holding hands – we’ve got to talk to each other."