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Whistler’s power triangle needs to be expanded

To understand the power structure in Canadian cities, SFU professor Ed Gibson used to say, you only have to look at the skylines. The tallest towers in Canadian cities belong to banks. To understand how the U.S.

To understand the power structure in Canadian cities, SFU professor Ed Gibson used to say, you only have to look at the skylines. The tallest towers in Canadian cities belong to banks. To understand how the U.S. power structure differs look at American cities, where the tallest office towers belong to corporations.

There aren’t any office towers in Whistler, of course, but anyone who has been here a while understands that there are three organizations that are central to decision making: the Resort Municipality of Whistler, Tourism Whistler and Whistler-Blackcomb. There are other organizations that play a role in Whistler – the chamber of commerce, the Commercial Core group, One Whistler, to name a few – but at least one, and often all three members of Whistler’s power triangle, are involved in every major decision in town.

As one of the three cornerstones, Tourism Whistler’s role is to promote and sell Whistler to the rest of the world. That’s a job that everyone in town has an interest in, including the 7,000 members of the organization. Our economy is based entirely on people visiting here; everyone has a stake in how Tourism Whistler does its job.

So what does it say about the community’s interest in matters when there are three vacancies on the board of Tourism Whistler and they are all filled by acclamation?

It’s not as though it’s been smooth sailing in the tourism business the last four years. The competition from other mountain resorts in B.C. is increasing and the global tourism market is changing rapidly. There are also opportunities that have never existed before, like the Canadian Tourism Commission’s relocation to Vancouver, the 2010 Olympics and the expansion of transportation infrastructure, including Vancouver International Airport, the Sea to Sky Highway and the Rocky Mountaineer passenger train.

Just about everyone has an opinion of Tourism Whistler, and everyone has a stake in it, and yet there are more applicants for a job folding T-shirts than there are for a Tourism Whistler board seat.

What’s concerning is the Tourism Whistler situation could be a symptom of a larger problem for Whistler. There hasn’t been any scientific polling or hard data produced – as is so often the case in this town, we are relying on anecdotal information – but in private conversations around town it sounds like there are several business owners who see the 2010 Olympics as an opportunity – an opportunity to get out of Whistler for good.

This is, to be sure, a feeling rather than a quantifiable fact. But it is a feeling that holds serious consequences for Whistler. For one thing it suggests that people aren’t thinking about Whistler beyond 2010.

For many business owners, that’s understandable. Some have just barely survived four consecutive winters of declining numbers and one decent winter doesn’t resolve four years worth of financial strain. Things are starting to look up and there is some excitement about 2010 so maybe it’s a good time to get out.

And career-wise, many Whistler business owners are reaching an age where it might be time to try something different, perhaps in a town where the economy doesn’t fluctuate so wildly from month to month.

But if – again, a big if – there is any validity in this sense that a number of business people are waiting to cash out and leave, it makes a further mockery of the idea that Whistler is working towards becoming a sustainable community. There is still a feeling among many that Whistler is a great place to live for a while, but inevitably you will move on.

It makes you wonder what those seniors, who have patiently stayed here waiting for seniors housing to be built, see in this place.

If there is a turnover of businesses in the next few years there will still be opportunities for a new generation of business owners in Whistler. But they will be different opportunities than the present generation has had. For one, the community will be at virtual buildout and physical growth will no longer be part of the equation.

But the next few years will also bring opportunities elsewhere, at other mountain resorts and in other B.C. communities. There may be less interest in Whistler than some anticipate. Or it may be that the next generation of business people in Whistler report to head offices in other cities and towns.

There’s a lot of speculation in the previous paragraphs. The point is, if there are a lot of people looking to cash out of Whistler in the next few years are we ready for it; have we done enough succession planning?

The speculative answer would have to be no. The few young people that have shown an interest in Whistler’s affairs have, for the most part, been shut out in municipal elections. They haven’t shown an interest in the Tourism Whistler board. It has taken too long to build affordable housing, which would help them believe they have a stake in Whistler. For the foreseeable future, the decision making in Whistler remains within a too-small triangle.