Since more than 5,000 people flocked to the village in 2003 to celebrate the successful bid to host the 2010 Winter Games, it feels like public enthusiasm for the Olympics has dipped from the highest highs to the lowest lows, from “we’ll show the world” to “how much is this going to cost?”, from fist pumping to fist shaking.
Of course, I’m not basing this on any polls, just my own observations and conversations with locals. But in my humble opinion, the Games are at their lowest point yet in terms of public perception. Things will probably turn around as we get closer, but the view 16 months out is rather bleak.
The Sea to Sky Highway Improvement Project (technically not an Olympic legacy, but obviously timed for the Games) has now been underway for three and a half years. While I’m sure we’ll love it when it’s finished we’re all getting tired of closures, delays, potholes, reduced speed limits, invisible highway lines, and other inconveniences.
This fall we’ll also see the start of a Ministry of Transportation project to widen Highway 99 to three lanes from Function Junction to Whistler Creek, which will likely cause more delays and disruptions.
Residents have seen the promised legacy of a new hockey arena scrapped, but the Lot 1/9 forest was cleared anyway for an outdoor medal plaza some people felt could have been placed elsewhere. More recently some B.C. Hydro lands were cleared and wetlands filled in to build a new bus depot and hydrogen refueling station to showcase that technology at the Games. Meanwhile our existing diesel bus fleet is ailing and causing delays for riders as we wait until 2009 for the new hydrogen bus fleet to arrive.
Whistler did gain valuable concessions from the province for the Games. We received an extra four per cent of the hotel tax, which could add $7 million a year to municipal coffers, while we have about $8.7 million in Olympic costs to bear. The agreement also expires in 2011, so any long-term benefit will require a post-Olympic extension by government.
Plus, the province also saw fit to resolve the condo hotel tax in such a way that the municipality will actually receive about $2 million less in taxes per year, canceling out some of the hotel tax gains almost as soon as they were announced.
We received a land bank in Whistler, but only as part of a three-way deal involving First Nations that will result in more development that few residents want — more homes above Rainbow and Alpine North, and likely a new gas station by Function Junction that may be sorely needed, but how many of us want to see trees cut down to build it when there’s an empty lot in Creekside?
The boundary expansion is also a good thing, but also comes with some strings attached and didn’t include a section of the Callaghan that may be slated for massive satellite development by First Nations.
Whistler also gained ownership of the day skier lots from the province, but only in exchange for spending about $7 million to mitigate the Fitzsimmons Creek land slump. That means pay parking, extremely unpopular among locals, is pretty much guaranteed at this point.
Development everywhere in and around Whistler has been accelerated. In addition to Olympic venues, other projects are being rushed through like new hotels, hotel renovations, the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, the campground expansion, the sewage treatment plant upgrade and the landfill closure.
These things aren’t negative in themselves, but the resulting construction boom has raised the cost of all projects, even as well-paid construction workers create more competition in Whistler’s limited rental market and drive up rental costs.
At the same time, a growing number of resort employees are being told they will have to temporarily or permanently vacate their rental accommodation during the Games while the owners attempt to cash in.
Parents will also be left scrambling, with the high school closing for three weeks and the elementary school closing for one week during the Games as spring break is moved up to Games time in February. There is not enough daycare space for all of those kids, and some parents may find themselves unable to work or volunteer during the busiest weeks the resort will ever experience.
Nobody knows exactly what the Games are really going to cost, federally, provincially or municipally, and governments are not being up front about what constitutes an Olympic expense.
We only recently found out that the Canadian Armed Forces plan to house 1,800 Canadian soldiers in the corridor during the Games. Why so many? What kind of presence will they have? Will off-duty soldiers overrun our already busy bars and restaurants, and create longer lines for services?
While Olympic plans for issues like transportation and security are slowly being flushed out, locals still have a lot of questions about travel, access to the village, and availability of services. The lack of answers is also tainting our view of the Games.
Eventually, I hope all of these issues will work themselves out, and that the benefits of the Games — a new employee neighbourhood at Cheakamus Crossing, another gas station, buses running on hydrogen, new sections of Valley Trail, a new fitness and gymnastics centre, new sources of municipal revenue, control over an area almost four times larger than our previous municipal boundaries, closer ties with First Nations, more tourism and conference business, a new and safer highway, and a chance to experience the Games — will be worth all the trouble.
But there’s no denying that this is the low point, a time when many are wondering just what we’ve gotten ourselves into.