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The winter that lies ahead

The Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival starts this weekend, the annual celebration of winter, skiing, snowboarding, Big Air, big parties and other things that we're all here for.

The Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival starts this weekend, the annual celebration of winter, skiing, snowboarding, Big Air, big parties and other things that we're all here for.

The festival is a chance to reflect on the strange winter season just ending, and to look forward to the even more unpredictable winter that lies ahead.

Winter is important not just because most of us came here to play on the snow and in the mountains, but from a practical perspective, because winter pays the bills. Winter makes it possible for "mountain people" to survive here. Winter pays for new lifts to new terrain; it pays for softball diamonds; it has helped top up daycare funding and provided WAG's annual grant.

This winter has not met expectations: snow expectations early, financial expectations at the end, although that was anticipated even before winter started.

Next winter is going to be... unique. It's too soon to tell exactly how it will unfold. But it's not too soon to begin preparing for it.

Last year at this time there was a general fear that there would be a shortage of housing for seasonal workers, for the winter just ending and for next winter. That, of course led to the Phoenix project, a proposal to provide temporary housing in shipping containers. Unfortunately the financial crisis hit the manufacturer at precisely the wrong time and the project that originated with the chamber of commerce had to be cancelled.

Initially there was fear that the cancellation would leave Whistler short of staff for the winter of 2008-09. But the economic recession took care of that problem, with many businesses cutting back on staff because there was less business.

But next winter presents a whole new set of problems.

In the wake of the Phoenix project's demise a private company, Whistler Workforce, came forward with a proposal to build temporary accommodation. That proposal has met with lukewarm response from Whistler businesses still fearful of the employee housing situation next winter, but just as careful about guaranteeing the rent on rooms they may or may not need in very uncertain times.

Whistler Workforce apparently has commitments from Whistler businesses for less than 10 per cent of the 360 beds it is proposing to provide. It's believed that VANOC would be interested in many or all of the beds during February and March next year, but two or three months of rent won't finance the project.

Meanwhile, there is still no sign of the temporary housing, other than a crane that has been on the site for more than a month. And every month that goes by compresses the timeframe that the temporary housing will be in existence, and that the proponent has to recover his costs.

If the project goes ahead at all. And given the economy and the Olympic aversion that we're hearing visitors have, perhaps Whistler can get through another winter without any additional housing for seasonal employees. But predictions about next winter are, at this point, just guesses.

The economy, generally, is morphing as the recession drags on. People are more cautious in their spending, many are saving more than they used to, and many just don't have money to spend on anything but essentials. Within this changing general economy Whistler will be hosting the Olympics, right in the middle of what is usually our busiest season. There will be plenty of people around Whistler during the Olympics, and they will all need to eat, drink and a place to sleep. But there won't be as much demand for, say, ski rentals as there usually is. In other words, the local economy will also morph.

While there is some understanding of who will be here during the Games and what their needs are likely to be, the period of December to January is harder to predict. There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence that regular visitors may stay away from Whistler next winter because of the Olympics, but there is also seven months to convince people that the Olympics aren't going to affect the vacation experience in December and January.

Into these unpredictable economies there are now new variables in the housing situation. As usual at this time of year, the number of suites and rooms available for rent swells. But there are more and more stories of long-term leases that only go only until Jan. 31 next year. The lure of Olympic gold continues to dazzle some landlords.

And while it's difficult for local businesses to predict their staffing needs next winter, there is sure to be competition for employees next February. Out of town media, caterers and tour operators will be looking for Whistler residents for temporary work. They may be able to offer more compensation or "insider" experiences that local companies cannot. The key to these jobs will be having a place to live.

So, as welcome as spring is, it's not too early to be thinking about next winter. The housing situation, Olympic aversion and a changing economy all require attention.