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New council ‘engaged, committed, excited’

Team building first task

By Alison Taylor and Clare Ogilvie

Filled with a sense of renewed energy and optimism after Saturday’s victory, Whistler’s new mayor and council are ready to hit the ground running.

Mayor-elect Ken Melamed, who won a hard-fought election race by a margin of roughly 350 votes, already has a 60-day action plan chock full of pressing things that need to be done, not the least of which is creating and fostering a team among four rookie councillors, one incumbent, and one veteran councillor who last served during the 1996-1999 term.

"What I sense already in talking with the new councillors is everyone is very engaged and very committed and very excited about the potential and the opportunity for the next three years," said Melamed of what he describes as a "strong council."

Among Melamed’s long list of things to do in the next two months is to finalize the Rainbow employee housing project, complete the pre-planning for the athletes village and find more marketing dollars for the resort to generate more room nights and stimulate the economy.

Newly elected candidate Bob Lorriman is confident the community has picked a good team to tackle all the work ahead. He is also keen to follow up on Melamed’s idea that the new team head up the slopes for an inaugural ski together before they are officially sworn into office Monday, Dec. 5 th .

"When you look at his 60-day plan the number one thing is to build an effective team," said Lorriman. "So I feel pretty good about it and I feel with the mayor’s race it was pretty decisive. I would have been more concerned if it was really close but it wasn’t close. So I think now it’s time for the community to put it all aside and move forward."

Newly-elected candidate Ralph Forsyth, who was not successful in the last election, but came fourth this time around with 1,469 votes, has his own ideas about moving things forward. He is keen to ensure Whistler’s youth is a voice that will be heard by the new council.

As the youngest councillor at 36 years old, Forsyth has already approached the new mayor about starting a Youth Advisory Committee so young people can voice their opinions and let council know what they need to survive in this unique town.

"I think there’s an impression out there that young people like me aren’t equipped to do it or aren’t smart enough to do it and that’s false," said Forsyth. "I’m pleased that there’s someone under 50 on council and that that person’s me. I think that for a long time young people have been underrepresented in our town."

Forsyth was at home in 19 Mile Creek Saturday night having a little party with friends when the election results came in.

"I was totally stoked," he said "It was something that I’ve worked really hard for."

Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said she was humbled to have received the highest number of votes in the election at 2,127. That was almost 500 votes above second place councillor Lorriman who received 1,646.

"It’s very humbling that so many people have so much confidence in me," said a glowing Wilhelm-Morden at Melamed’s party in the Garibaldi Lift Company Saturday night.

Wilhelm-Morden, who had aligned herself with Melamed throughout the campaign, praised the new mayor for running what she called a "fabulous campaign" which did not degenerate into any mud slinging against the other candidates.

"He really showed that he is the face of Whistler," she said.

Incumbent Gordon McKeever said he was disappointed that in the weeks leading up to the election there were slanderous personal attacks of different candidates by members of the community and some campaign teams. He called it "city-style campaigning."

But that’s behind the community now and it’s time to move forward, he said.

"The message is clear," added McKeever. "I hope the new team is prepared to hit the ground running because there’s a lot to get done."

With the Olympics and Paralympics just over four years away it is clear this is a crucial time for a new mayor and council.

"Time is one of our few enemies in this," said Maureen Douglas, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the Games. "Everyone will be aware of that and all of us will have to address that accordingly."

The first priority from VANOC’s point of view, said Douglas, would be to flesh out the plans for the Paralympic ice arena, which Whistler finally decided to go ahead with last month.

"We will be looking to see what (council’s) thoughts are and what direction it will be taking quite keenly so that we can move forward on this," she said.

Douglas said VANOC is not concerned about working with Melamed, despite the fact that he was the only councillor who voted not to endorse the Games. She said he has made it clear that his endorsement was withheld only because he wanted to see more benefits for the community from the deal.

"I certainly believe that point of view from him and respect it," said Douglas. "I also have full confidence that he wants to work on making these the best Games ever."

Relations between VANOC and Whistler’s council have been good over the years, she said adding: "We look forward to working with a creative and enthusiastic team at the RMOW."

Whistler-Blackcomb expressed the same desire to work with a new council as the Games approach.

"There is a lot of hard work to do," said Dave Brownlie, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Whistler-Blackcomb.

The Games brings with it not just the event but legacies in the form of a new ice arena for the Paralympics, a world-class Nordic centre, an athlete’s centre, a bob-sled luge run and media exposure Whistler couldn’t afford to buy.

The council must also address the serious issue of the economy in Whistler, which has been battered in recent years with, amongst other things a strong Canadian dollar, fewer U.S. travellers, high gas prices and a freaky rainstorm last season, which spooked skiers.

"It is absolutely essential that mayor and council be proactive in terms of the tourism economy," said Brownlie. "It needs to be open and responsive to new approaches."

A new idea put forward during the last council term was a regional airport. Despite several heated debates council would not fund a $20,000 study to investigate the possibility further. In the end the study was funded by Tourism Whistler and Whistler-Blackcomb.

"(Tourism Whistler) believes a regional airport is critical for the resort’s success," said the organization’s President Barrett Fisher, adding that data shows Whistler could grow new visitors by 30 per cent.

"Whether it is Whistler or whether it is Pemberton we just believe that the opportunity to be more competitive and to bring incremental traffic would certainly be a positive push for Whistler’s economy."

Tourism Whistler is also hoping for more funding to expand marketing, as competition for the visitor gets more and more intense.

"We do have a funding stream for marketing and sales but when times are tough and we need to increase that funding we certainly would hope that the municipality would potentially look at increasing their investment in marketing and sales," said Fisher.

And it is looking for a council that understands that the Olympics are critical to the resort’s future.

The past council was also roundly criticized in the community for failing to come through on more resident restricted housing. Resort partners are looking for the new council to deliver on housing commitments.

"Employee housing is a must for us," said Brownlie. "At the end of the day the people that make Whistler work are not just the rich and famous they are really those who love to live and play here."

His concern is that if there is nowhere affordable to live a skilled employee base will be impossible to maintain. That’s also a concern for members of this council.

Among the team is Tim Wake, former general manager of the Whistler Housing Authority, and perhaps one of the biggest advocates for employee housing in the past decade.

Wake complimented the skill set of his fellow councillors on Saturday night when he first learned the election results. Councillors range in profession from a lawyer, a ski instructor, a few consultants, and several members with an entrepreneurial spirit.

"I think everybody there is keen to move forward," said Wake.

Eckhard Zeidler, the sixth councillor elected, was also upbeat.

"I’m so thrilled about this town because everybody’s on the same page," he said. "We’re thinking the same way. We have the same values.

"I’m truly inspired by the town and we’re only beginning to do great things."

Perhaps Forsyth with his trademark enthusiasm summed it up best this week.

"What people were looking for in this election was some hope that things are going to get better, that this is a corner that we’ve turned and things are headed in the right direction," he said. "And I promise to work as hard as I can to make things better for Whistler."