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Slightly higher learning

Whistler voters have issues upon issues to consider in this municipal election, including some very serious questions about the resort’s ability to provide current levels of services without a serious increase in property taxes.

Whistler voters have issues upon issues to consider in this municipal election, including some very serious questions about the resort’s ability to provide current levels of services without a serious increase in property taxes.

But one idea that is getting a lot of traction through the campaign, in the name of economic diversification, is the concept of a Whistler University or a Whistler campus for an existing institution like BCIT. Some believe that it could help solve Whistler’s shortage of skilled employees, raise the resort’s stature internationally, diversify the economy, and provide opportunities for locals to pursue higher learning.

The main drawback for this idea appears to be the location. The Zen lands (a.k.a. Millar Creek wetlands, a.k.a. the last undeveloped piece of valley bottom not protected in parks with enough space for something this size) are an environmental bombshell.

Other valid points made against a university include the fact that it will likely come with a commercial real estate development to defray the cost, the possibility that it could place an additional burden on the municipality at a time when the budget is strained, and the reality that it will divert workers and beds from the tourism industry.

It also distracts from Whistler’s core industry. As Councillor Ralph Forsyth pointed out at an all-candidates meeting, Whistler’s should stick to doing what it’s best at, tourism, and any economic diversification should be related to diversifying the tourism experience.

All good points, all hotly refuted by proponents for an institution of higher learning in Whistler.

My reason for objecting is simpler and more selfish. I’m generally against any large scale development if it brings more people to live here, because I feel the mountains are too crowded already. The last thing I need are 300 students who’ll cut class every powder day to compete with me for fresh snow.

Besides that, I think Whistler’s reputation is just fine and the existence of a university will do little to enhance what we have. Remember, we just got a real library this year, after almost 40 years of steady growth and development.

Besides, until Quest University is completed and all of its classes are filled, and the Capilano College campus in Squamish is expanded and upgraded, we have no idea what the demand might be. Both those schools can claim the same amenities as Whistler, albeit with a much longer drive to the ski hill.

Then there’s the fact that Canada has enough post-secondary schools, some of which are already struggling to fill classes. Vancouver is closing elementary schools and high schools because there aren’t enough students in the city, with families moving to the suburbs, and there’s a general demographic shift going on. Do we really need to add another school, in the smug belief that it’s going to make money? At a time when people can take online correspondence courses for just about everything?

What happens if the university is only half complete, and the proponents A) run out of money and/or B) their costs double? What will Whistler have to give up to keep this project on the rails? More market homes? Municipal funding?

That’s not to say I’m against the idea of higher learning in Whistler, I just don’t see why we need to have an actual university to provide it. I have two words on this topic — Learning Annex.

The original Learning Annex was founded in New York City in 1980 to provide people with opportunities to further their education and learn valuable life and work skills. If someone had something to teach they could advertise the course and sign up people who wanted to learn. It’s like co-op education — cheap, grass roots, and relevant.

Whistler has the space. There are multi-purpose meeting rooms in Millennium Place, at Myrtle Philip and Spring Creek schools, at Whistler Secondary, at the conference centre, and in every hotel and strata. As well, all kinds of Whistler workplaces, like kitchens, garages and workshops, are potential classrooms for specialized courses.

All we would need to make a Learning Annex a reality is a central registrar to find qualified teachers, advertise courses, sign up students, and make friendly agreements with property owners to keep enrollment costs down.

Although I like the idea of going back to school, I have no clue what courses I would take and doubt I have the time to complete a single course, much less enough time to take the courses I would need to actually get a degree in something.

But I can see the potential of a Whistler Learning Annex.

Local accountants could offer basic accounting and budgeting programs, musicians could teach guitar and piano, mechanics could teach car maintenance and bike repair, artisans could teach art, trainers could teach self-defence and personal fitness, carpenters could teach woodwork and all types of home improvement, computer geeks could teach keyboarding and courses on software.

We could have certified programs for first aid practitioners and advanced drivers’ licences, Serving It Right courses for bartenders and waitresses, food safety courses for cooks and kitchen managers, Infant Toddler and early childhood education programs for our daycares, coaching programs for our sports clubs, and so on.

Theoretically, people could sign up to learn anything that anybody wants to teach.

Best of all, it wouldn’t cost a thing.