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Arena part of members discussion about resort economy

Tourism Whistler presents strategies, plans for the future

Are Whistler taxpayers willing to see their taxes increase in order to fund a multi-million dollar ice arena in the village?

That was the question posed by Acting Mayor Nick Davies at a Tourism Whistler meeting Wednesday afternoon.

His question drew quick response from some of the roughly 100 community members at the meeting, which focused on the resort’s ailing economy.

"It’s an impossible question to answer," answered Mike Wintemute, general manager of Re/Max Sea to Sky Real Estate. "I don’t have enough information to give you that answer."

Tourism Whistler’s meeting was not called to discuss the Paralympic arena, rather to talk about ongoing summer and winter marketing and some new initiatives. And yet, the discussion veered toward the proposed village arena, and the fact that Whistler may choose not to build it at all, highlighting a growing concern among community members about the state of business in the resort and what the community is doing to deal with it.

To date, there are scant details available about the Paralympic arena.

Whistler council is looking at all its options, one of which includes asking Squamish to build the facility and host the sledge hockey events during the Paralympic Games.

Originally the arena was slated to go on Lot 1/Lot 9 in the village, along with a $20 million cheque from the Vancouver Organizing Committee to build it.

With construction costs on the rise throughout the province the cost to build the arena may have doubled.

"There’s only one place that money can come from and that’s taxes," said Davies to the audience.

As such, he asked, would a homeowner be willing to see their taxes increase from $4,000 to $4,500 or a business owner willing to see their taxes jump from $10,000 to $12,000.

Business owner Dave Davenport’s reply was that if the arena drove more business to the resort and as a result, increased his sales more than the increase to his tax bill, then he would be willing to pay more in taxes.

Tourism Whistler Board Chair Rick Clare added his two cents too.

"Raise my taxes," he stated simply. "I’d rather go down in flames than wish I’d lit a fire."

The discussion on the 5,000-seat arena was put to rest by Councillor Gord McKeever, who said council still cannot talk about the details of the deal. A business analysis, along with all the other details of the deal, will be available, he said, in the days leading up to the Aug. 15 council meeting. Council will then hold an open house before making their final decision on the arena at their Sept. 6 meeting.

Tourism Whistler’s meeting, called with less than a week’s notice, drew roughly 100 community members, from business owners to restaurateurs, real estate agents and three members of council.

President Barrett Fisher kicked off the two-hour discussion saying that when times are good they can’t get people out to meetings, as opposed to when times are bad.

"Crisis does bring people together," she noted.

Fisher touched on several issues during her presentation to the group. There are external factors affecting business to the resort, such as the desire for people to stay close to home, as well as internal problems, such as a glut of accommodation in the marketplace and a lack of diverse products for all price points.

The fact remains, however, that business is down four per cent this year, based on room nights in Whistler. That decrease is on top of four years of steady decline, which takes the resort down 19 per cent from its peak in 2000-01.

Tourism Whistler has ideas to combat this downward trend. They include targeting market segments, such as the gay market and the family market.

"We need to deliver new products, especially for the family market," she said.

They plan to focus on group markets and luring more conference business to Whistler. This market is not dependent on the weather, which is a bonus particularly in years such as 2005, which saw torrential rains in January followed by a poor early summer.

They plan to offer new products such as a spa and wellness themed event, which could be done in conjunction with the 20 spas in the resort.

There’s an overall perception beyond Whistler that the resort is not only too expensive but that there’s a "holier than thou" attitude out there.

"We have to show them that we are open for business," said Fisher.

"How can we generate some excitement and vibrancy in Whistler?"

The question, said Fisher, is to look at where Whistler needs to diversify in the long term to feed the economic machine that is the resort. The community has long talked about a tubing or tobogganing park and an outdoor skating rink, among other things, she added.

"Maybe an indoor skating rink in the village is more important," she said,

Acting Mayor Davies said that while some of Tourism Whistler’s initiatives are medium or long-term strategies, there doesn’t appear to be anything to prevent the business from sliding even further downhill in the near future.

"We’re still on the downslide," he said. "My view is we need some shock and awe tactics."

Tourism Whistler will follow up on Wednesday’s meeting with a second meeting on Aug. 17 to discuss value in the resort.