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Phoenix put to rest

Temporary housing project cancelled; local businesses scramble to find alternative accommodation
Jobs Yes, Beds No Accommodation is a bigger obstacle this year for resort workers, such as these Whistler-Blackcomb applicants at a past job fair. Phoenix would have provided 308 temporary beds to employers.

One month after the Phoenix Board first announced their temporary housing complex was on shaky ground, the project to house 308 Whistler employees from this winter through the 2010 Olympics has been proclaimed dead.

The announcement came Monday, after the top three interested suppliers told the board they could not make the project work given current constraints.

“When it came to it, they did not feel it made sense for them,” said Phoenix project spokesperson Brian Good, who is also general manager of employee experience for Whistler-Blackcomb.

“We, unfortunately, made the announcement to businesses last night. We are not moving ahead. We are back to individual businesses trying to find houses.”

Good was not able to name the three suppliers who were interested in the Phoenix project, but said they were all reputable companies from British Columbia.

He added that he is preparing for participating businesses’ mixed reactions now that the temporary housing complex is no longer happening.

“I just hope that people will not only recognize that we have made every effort that we could, but also that we’ve come away knowing that we need a long-term solution,” said Good.

The Phoenix project was started earlier this year as a two-winter solution to Whistler’s housing crunch. By the fall of 2010 the Olympic athletes’ village will become resident-restricted housing and the Rainbow development will add to the pool of resident housing.

After concerted efforts by the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, the municipality and others to push the Phoenix project forward, in late August, the Phoenix board revealed that supplier SG Blocks was short $3 million. The following week, the American supplier was dropped from the project.

Since that time, several interested companies approached the Phoenix Board to see if they might be able to make the project happen. The board reviewed the top three proposals but set a Sept. 22 deadline to make a final decision on whether or not to carry the project forward.

Now that Phoenix is defunct, the 42 businesses that put down payments on the temporary housing will have to find alternative accommodation for their employees in an already tight rental market.

Marla Zucht, general manager of the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA), said the housing crunch appears to be greater this year than before.

“We were seeing it in August with new employees arriving in town and already coming into our office,” said Zucht, who is also a member of the Phoenix Board.

“That is an unusual scenario. We would not have experienced that in the past years. It would usually be October that some people would make their way into our office.”

According to statistics collected by the WHA, the number of unrestricted rental units available for rent during the week of Aug. 23 has decreased substantially since 2004. Particularly, in 2006 there were 260 units listed, in 2007 there were 78 units, and this year there were only 40 units.

Zucht added that while a 111-bed WHA rental unit near Nesters will be reopened this year, the housing situation is still going to be tough.

“Every bed helps for sure, but the demand is still so much stronger than the inventory we have out there,” said Zucht.

Joey Gibbons, owner of four bars in Whistler and the biggest participant in the Phoenix project with 50 beds, said now that the project has been cancelled, his company will “just have to get really creative” to get through the next winter.

“I’ll have to explore other options, whether it be locally or in Pemberton or Squamish,” said Gibbons.

“We’ll just have to figure it out as we go and sit down and do what we can do.”

Gibbons added that while historically his company has not had accommodation issues, he signed up for beds in Phoenix because he realized how tough the rental market was becoming in Whistler.

Whistler-Blackcomb, the second largest participant in Phoenix, also hopes to operate efficiently without Phoenix, said Good.

“We are as well off as we were last year, and last year was a record year. It is just that we wanted, for us and the community, to lighten some of the pressure so people could find a bed more easily,” he said.

Good said Whistler-Blackcomb’s revamped recruiting strategy, where the bulk of full time employees are hired overseas before arriving in Whistler, should help reduce the November housing rush.

He added that Whistler-Blackcomb is also combining jobs to “better utilize our beds.” For example, a 24-hour-a-week retail job might be joined with a 24-hour-a-week food and beverage job, he said.

Other businesses are trying to proactively secure other accommodation. Pradeep Puri, general manager of the Hilton Whistler Resort and Spa, said for the past three weeks, the Hilton has advertised in local newspapers that they are willing to offer landlords a two-year contract with a guarantee to cover all damages.

He added: “Obviously I am disappointed that this thing has fallen through, but the community’s efforts are commendable for trying until the last moment.”

Chris Quinlan, Phoenix Board member and owner of Behind the Grind Coffee Shop, added that most businesses have graciously accepted that the project has been abandoned.

“It is really disappointing, but the reaction from all the businesses so far has been ‘Thanks for giving it your best shot,’” said Quinlan.

He added: “This has just identified how serious of a need there is for temporary accommodation. For us to try and fool ourselves to thinking we do not need it is just ridiculous.”

Meanwhile, the Phoenix Board has not yet been disbanded, and Zucht said the board may be willing to explore other temporary housing solutions that come their way.

“The additional media coverage (with Phoenix) has helped highlight the issue for other companies, so maybe there is still a possibility that there will be other opportunities to explore,” she said.

Added Good: “I think we have to get a group of people together again to go, ‘Okay, what is a different way we could do this?’

“Given the situation that we are in, we are probably going to need a group at some point to look at this next year and the years after.”