Coming through in the clutch

What a difference a couple of months and a lot of homework makes.

In February the chamber of commerce approached Whistler council with what was presumably a request for assistance in creating some housing for seasonal employees, starting next winter and through the 2010 Paralympics. To say it went over poorly is like suggesting the Titanic encountered some difficulties on its maiden voyage.

The mayor railed about the business community not stepping up in the past and only coming forward now, at the 11 th hour.

The chamber’s representative, Tom Horler, was asked for a business plan. It wasn’t available.

Horler asked for municipal staff time. It wasn’t available without at least a business plan.

Some councillors offered support for the concept, but Councillor Ralph Forsyth — who was part of the chamber group that put forward the concept — voted against the motion. You’d have to review CTV’s tape of the whole confusing evening to figure out the logic.

But this week was an entirely different story.

Chamber President Louise Lundy made the 10-minute presentation to council Monday, backed with figures from a survey of Whistler businesses on the demand for housing and what those businesses would be willing to pay. The Holborn site had previously been identified for the temporary housing, but there were also drawings of how the units would be configured on the site, what they would look like, who would supply them, how long it would take to assemble them and how long to dismantle them. Lawyers are working on a corporate structure and lease agreements are being drafted. Businesses must make a financial commitment of $1,950 by May 28 if they want in. And if there isn’t enough buy-in it won’t happen.

It’s “very exciting” the mayor said, before praising the “beautiful design” and offering congratulations to all involved.

A carefully-worded motion was already prepared and the whole thing was wrapped up before the public hearings started at 7 p.m.

To suggest that there was a fair bit of work done behind the scenes since February is like saying NASA did a bit of research before sending Neil Armstrong to the moon.

The basic premise for the temporary housing is well understood. There is a shortage of labour, certainly in Western Canada if not the western hemisphere. Seasonal employees are critical for most Whistler businesses to operate, and having affordable housing is key to attracting enough seasonal employees. As Whistler-Blackcomb’s former human resources director said last fall, “…no longer are there enough young folks out there on the planet willing to take the risk to come to Whistler to find a job and then hope to get housing.”

And while Whistler may have enough housing for full-time residents after the 2010 Olympics, the demand for housing among seasonal employees is going to increase. As Lundy said Monday, research is showing a severe shortage of employees over the next two years, and many businesses are already feeling it. In the lead-up to the 2010 Olympics, and right through the Games, a number of Olympic-related businesses will come to town and need employees for short-term contracts. So the demand for labour is only going to increase.

Which leads back to the Phoenix Project, the temporary housing approved Monday. It still requires businesses to put up cash before the end of the month in order to guarantee that the whole project happens. The chamber’s survey showed a demand for almost 400 beds. The project is planned for 210 beds, possibly expanding to 290 beds. It sounds like demand will exceed capacity.

But businesses that want beds will have to guarantee the rent on each bed for 18 months, from November to April of 2010. Many businesses need several beds for employees in the winter months but not so many beds for the spring, summer and fall months. It should be possible to match these businesses with construction companies that will need beds next summer. Doing that matching in the next three weeks will be critical to making the whole project happen.

There is still plenty of risk — for the chamber, for individual businesses, perhaps for the municipality and Holborn. But the greater risk would be doing nothing; not adding to the supply of housing for seasonal employees for the next two winters.

It is the 11 th hour. There are tight deadlines and the only ones making guarantees are the businesses that put up money for beds. There may also be some negative fallout, when the Lower Mainland media discover Whistler employees are being housed in re-engineered containers and contrast that image with some of the spectacular homes in Whistler. But the situation called for action — now. The response, so far, on all sides has been exemplary. Congratulations to all involved.

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