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Whistler businesses want municipality to refocus on economy

Business owners complain of "red tape" making it difficult to prosper

Pique Oct. 6, 2011

In the lead-up to November's election, a common theme is emerging from Whistler business owners: the municipality makes it tough to do business here.

Business owners around the community believe it is getting harder to do business in the world's premier ski resort. Part of that has to do with a stagnant world economy that has manifested itself in Whistler in the form of empty shop fronts and fewer international visitors.

But, according to a number of businesspeople in Whistler, it also has a lot to do with rules and actions being taken at the hall. Taxes are going up - 22 per cent in the past four years - and on top of that they claim the municipality is implementing rules and procedures that make it difficult to add value to a business.

"The role of the municipality is to make it easier for businesses to operate within Whistler," said Wayne Katz, owner of Zog's, Moguls and Gone Bakery.

Just putting a new table on a patio at any of his restaurants has to go through a lengthy procedure before it can happen, said Katz, who is also the co-president of the Whistler Restaurants Association, though he spoke to Pique only on behalf of himself.

"There's a lot of red tape you have to go through to make things happen. So if the processes were easier and more accommodating for the small businesses, ie. there are too many departments to have to go through, it would make it easier and of course it would help business a lot."

An application for a development permit, for example, would first go to planning staff, then be circulated around to various municipal departments for review.

Depending on the complexity of the development, it would have to be taken to the Advisory Design Panel or the Advisory Planning Commission. Once that's completed, the applicant could be asked to submit revised plans. If staff is satisfied with the plans, it then goes to council for approval, and even there, council can render a decision or send it back to staff for further review.

The municipality permits a streamlined approval process for additions to buildings or structures where the interior floor space is increased by 20 square metres or less.

"There's too many things just to do something simple," said Katz.

Development permits, however, aren't the only place that business owners feel there are too many rules.

Pat Kelly, a notary public and owner of the Whistler Real Estate Company, said the next mayor and council need to make decisions through the lens of, "Is this good for business?" And, he said, they need to stop living on the idea that people will keep coming because it's Whistler.

"I know some people in the hall believe the demand for Whistler is inelastic, it doesn't matter what we do, people will keep coming," Kelly said. "I think we need to stop thinking people have to come here. We have to earn that, every day, all the time."

For years now, he said that the municipality, both staff and council, have placed a lot of emphasis on a sustainable vision, fostered through programs such as Whistler2020, which sets out a vision for social and environmental sustainability and a healthy economy.

And while Kelly said that the municipality has spent much time articulating how those visions are important to the business community, he worries that the business side of the vision hasn't received much focus.

"I don't think anybody's going to argue with the need to be sustainable," he said.

The issue, he added, is that much of the emphasis has been placed on sustaining the environment and a healthy society while not enough has been placed on sustaining the economy.

"Really, only two legs of the stool seem to have been getting the emphasis," he said.

"I'm not sure there's an understanding of whether the business community is viable and sustainable under the way it's been operating."

One of the reasons Kelly thinks the business community is not operating in a sustainable manner is that there isn't enough communication with the municipality about how to foster economic activity.

He said a year or so ago, the municipality created a business enhancement committee that had representation from the municipality's planning department as well as various people from the business community. The committee was excited about getting started on some initiatives but then its work, according to Kelly, got pushed aside in favour of other projects.

That's unfortunate for Kelly because he said that Whistler is full of people who could be giving the municipality great feedback on how to stimulate business.

"That's where the solutions lie, is in collaboration, honest and meaningful collaboration and listening to the business community's solutions," he said. "Not 'we can't do that,' but let's see how we can make that work."

Kelly isn't the only one with concerns about Whistler2020. Paul Mathews, the president of Ecosign Mountain Planners Ltd., said a focus on sustainability at municipal hall has essentially come at the expense of stimulating business. He wants the next council to change that.

"I think they should put business and economic sustainability on equal footing with this green sustainability," he said. "We've gone, in my opinion, just way overboard on the green stuff. God almighty, the guy writing in the paper, saying we use too much water, look how much we've had fall on our heads. This isn't an issue, having water, it's just stupid, telling the Saudis they have too much sand or too much sun."

Mathews's vision for Whistler involves attracting a new kind of investment to the community. For years he has lobbied the municipality to create a business park to provide an alternative to Whistler Village, where he said lease rates are far beyond what many entrepreneurs can afford. A business park, he hastens to add, that would go beyond what's currently offered at Function Junction.

"Function Junction is and was meant to be the industrial park, including asphalt plants and concrete, but what we got is concrete, building supplies and layers, a very eclectic mix," he said.

"We would really love to have a nice place where you can be central to all the transportation systems, including all the trails and everything. You had some offices, maybe some employee accommodation above."

Such a business park, he said, could attract employers such as Electronic Arts and other firms that do international work and would want a nice place to locate.

"A company like that would love to have an office in Whistler," he said. "With them would come 200 employees and $200,000 in salaries. There's something that could help Whistler in future."