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Preparing for seismic shifts

We don't usually turn to politicians and their prepared speeches for confirmation, but if anyone remains unconvinced that we are living in a period of extraordinary change they could do worse than listen to some of our political leaders.

We don't usually turn to politicians and their prepared speeches for confirmation, but if anyone remains unconvinced that we are living in a period of extraordinary change they could do worse than listen to some of our political leaders.

On Tuesday night American President Barack Obama told a joint session of congress:

"What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more.

"Now, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that for too long we have not always met these responsibilities, as a government or as a people."

The Feb. 16 Throne Speech by the B.C. Liberals included this passage:

"The seismic shifts we are experiencing call for long-term thinking and fundamental changes in human behaviour that create the impetus for healthier living and innovation in health delivery, new housing and job creation."

Even Stephen Harper's Conservative government recognized the tenor of the times in its Speech from the Throne back on Nov. 19.

"This is a time of extraordinary global economic challenge and uncertainty. The world's financial system faces pressures not seen for many generations. Governments around the world have taken unprecedented steps to restore confidence in the face of a global economic slowdown."

We can hear the words and read the stories, but what does it mean in our little corner of the world? How does a community that revolves around people sliding down hills prepare for the changes that are taking place?

Whistler has certainly felt the economic slowdown this winter, where hotels offering "one night free" has become the new normal. The economic crunch has coincided with one of the strangest weather patterns in recent memory and produced far less snow than usual, which hasn't helped business.

Next winter, of course, the Olympics are coming to town. Getting skiers to come in numbers, either before or after the Games, is a challenge marketers are now trying to solve.

The prospect of two consecutive winters with business below par is particularly daunting to a mountain resort town because winter is when many businesses make their money for the year. From a business perspective, summer is shorter than winter. And summer visitors spend less than winter visitors.

Aside from tourism, one of the areas that has sustained Whistler's economy through summers past has been construction. While statistical evidence is spotty, there is little doubt that the boom in construction in recent summers has had a positive impact on the local economy. Well-paid construction crews have spent money on accommodation, food, drinks and other day-to-day expenses.

There are enough construction projects this summer to keep that micro-economy going this year - the Sea to Sky Highway upgrade, the highway expansion between Function and the village, the run-of-river hydro project and the debris barrier on Fitzsimmons Creek, the athletes' village, the Fitzsimmons Walk condos, the campground expansion and the Rainbow housing development. But with the exception of Rainbow, all of these projects should wrap up by the fall. Then what?

Likely there will be a big shift in construction business. There will still be some renovations of older hotels, the redevelopment of the tennis resort and some minor projects here and there, but there will be very little brand new development.

And most of the new development that will go ahead will be done by the Squamish and Lil'wat nations.

The First Nations, which have in recent years been developing their own construction companies through Olympic projects, have approval to build housing above the Rainbow project. They will also develop a service station at Function Junction. And they hold considerable development rights in the Callaghan Valley. A golf course and condos have been mentioned.

These are all market developments, so construction won't begin until the First Nations see a market for their real estate product. When that may be is anyone's guess right now.

But it's a fact that down the road the largest player in what has been a large part of Whistler's economy will be the Squamish and Lil'wat. That's not a bad thing; it's just different. For example, it may mean fewer construction workers occupying hotel rooms and eating in Whistler restaurants. It may also mean the First Nations have a long-term stake in the success of Whistler as a resort - something not all past developers have had.

There are many changes coming, from senior governments, from a restructured economy, from new energy and environmental initiatives, and through a greater interconnectedness among once disparate communities. It is a seismic shift.