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Economic impacts of Whistler festivals to be released on case-by-case basis

RMOW to balance transparency with confidentiality

The municipality has had a change of heart when it comes to releasing certain information about the economic impacts of festivals and events, some of which are supplemented with hotel tax funding.

The Tough Mudder event organizers also now want to release information — economic numbers that Pique has been asking for in the months after the completion of Tough Mudder's Economic Impact Assessment.

This week, Ben Johnson, Tough Mudder's head of communications, said the June event, with 25,000 participants, had an economic impact of more than $7.5 million in the province, with $4.2 million of that occurring in Whistler.

"We're very excited about it," he said. "It's by far one of our most exciting venues just based on accommodation and everything else the town has to offer."

Not releasing that information from the Economic Impact Assessment was "an oversight on our end," said Johnson.

Municipal Administrator Mike Furey confirmed this week that the municipality will be releasing key economic findings of future events on a case-by-case basis going forward. The move comes after comments of concern from Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden last week, when she learned that all Economic Impact Assessments (EIA) would be confidential after what appeared to be an internal decision within the municipality's Festivals, Events and Animation (FE&A) team.

"We went back and reflected on where we were in terms of putting numbers out there," Furey said.

"We want to be as accountable and transparent as we can in terms of providing information. We have to try and achieve a balance... of being accountable to the people in Whistler and getting as much information as we possibly can out to them, but at the same time not undermining our competitive advantage.

"We'll likely be able to release some of the key findings on a case-by-case basis as we go forward on those."

The assessments are paid for by the municipality.

Tough Mudder was bolstered with $112,000 in Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) money, said the RMOW.

But Johnson said that the quoted $112,000 in municipal augmentation funding "was actually a bit low."

The municipality confirmed that Tourism Whistler added an additional $28,000 in funding for a total of $140,000 investment. The additional money was used for transportation to bring guests from Whistler Olympic Park back to the village to ensure they spent time in Whistler.

Originally, Tough Mudder did not return phone calls and emails requesting the EIA study. Pique was then told to submit a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the municipality.

Last week, the EIA was returned to Pique with every single number redacted, blacked out in blocks.

Furey explained that under the FOI legislation, Whistler is required to consult with the third party being impacted in terms of the release of information.

"If they do have concerns about it, it's our policy that we wouldn't release the information," said Furey.

"We're required to respect their rights and that's what we did."

This week Pique met with key members of the municipal Festival Events & Animation Oversight Committee, including Tourism Whistler's president and CEO Barrett Fisher, community member-at-large Sue Adams, Councillor Roger McCarthy, and municipal staff members Mike Furey, Jan Jansen, John Rae and Michele Comeau.

They wanted to talk about the FE&A program, which is funded in part from the $7.08 million in RMI money that flows from hotel tax in Whistler to the province and then back to the resort from tourism related projects.

"Everyone refers to the FE&A funds as taxpayers' money," said Adams. "I don't know how many times we have to say that, have to clarify to people, that this is money that comes from tourists through the hotel tax. It's not a local tax that we're applying to this program."

More than $900,000 of this RMI money was funneled into festivals and events in 2013. It's called "augmentation funding."

According to the RMOW, Tough Mudder received the third largest investment at $112,000, behind the $250,000 for Ironman but ahead of $90,000 for Wanderlust.

The FE&A money, reiterated Fisher, is "there to create a competitive investment and to create a competitive advantage."

Added McCarthy: "We spend a lot of time thinking about how that money is going to be allocated.

"The goal is to generate room nights fundamentally."

But there are concerns over just how competitive the event marketplace has become in recent years.

"There's a lot of growth in municipal or community event production," explained Furey.

"These events are pretty mobile. They could come here, they could go to Burnaby, they could go to Sun Peaks.

"To be frank about it, we don't want to put out all of our learnings, and all our of experiences, and all of the detailed analysis... that allowed us to make some pretty good decisions to have the best summer on record."

He added that the great weather this summer, along with Tourism Whistler's marketing efforts, played significantly into that record-breaking summer.

Whistler commissioned eight EIA's in 2013. They are: WinterPRIDE, Luge World Championships (50 per cent paid for by the Canadian Luge Association), Whistler Cup, Tough Mudder, Children's Art Festival, Wanderlust, Ironman and Cornucopia.

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