Province still hasn’t figured out Whistler

Way, way back in time, when all the Beatles were still alive, the provincial government of British Columbia set in motion the events that would lead to the creation of the Resort Municipality of Whistler. It was Bob Williams, Minister of Lands in the first NDP government in B.C., who placed a moratorium on commercial development in 1973. He then commissioned studies that led to the recommendation that a special form of municipal government be created for the burgeoning town of Whistler. With Al Raine as the provincial government’s appointee on the first few Whistler councils, the town set out to make itself an international resort.

When the NDP were voted out and the Socreds came in, the province continued to be very involved in the formation and development of Whistler, even stepping in to stabilize the situation when the recession devastated the town’s development in 1983.

In the 1990s the province, again under an NDP government, received its payback – with interest – for the 1983 bailout by reaping windfall profits from the sale of Village North lands.

It’s ironic then that with the provincial government’s long history in this town its policies on so many issues still fit like the proverbial square peg in a round hole when it comes to Whistler. Liquor laws are the first that come to mind.

A couple of weeks ago, while reviewing the Chateau Whistler’s expansion of its Mallard Bar, it was discovered provincial regulations allow a maximum of 20.45 square feet per patron in a licensed establishment. Therefore the renovated Mallard has to be granted a liquor licence for 205 seats, even though the Chateau managers only want a maximum of 150 people in the lounge.

The labyrinth of licences and zones that plagued the AlpenRock when it first opened prohibited a patron from taking a drink from one side of the establishment to the other. Confusion still reigns when it comes to minors sitting with adults on licensed patios. How a visitor from another country, or even from another province, is supposed to make sense of this – to know which one of the eight or nine different liquor licences an establishment has, who is permitted entry under that licence and whether they have to order food or not – is beyond even the most worldly traveller.

That’s why the municipality’s Liquor Licence Advisory Committee recently asked Whistler council to lobby the provincial government to enact a licence scheme that is responsive to the needs of the resort community. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the province’s response.

Then there’s the matter of strata-titled hotels and their tax classification. This issue is not unique to Whistler, but condo-hotel development was pioneered in Whistler, with the province’s blessing.

Clearly provincial taxation laws have been trying to catch up with the realities of condo-hotels for years. The shenanigans that have gone on to get a property assessed at the residential rate, rather than the higher commercial rate, are the product of a bureaucracy that’s taken over in the absence of government leadership. One year a condo-hotel unit is assessed at the commercial rate, the next year it may be assessed at the residential rate because the assessment office has included parking stalls in its calculation of the number of units, or a second property management company looks after a percentage of the units. This yo-yoing doesn’t help owners, the municipality, the resort or the province.

Of course the way the province decides to provide funding for everything from health care to libraries to infrastructure grants ignores a fundamental fact about Whistler: it’s been built for visitors. But provincial funding is usually allocated to municipalities on the basis of population. So when Victoria announces money for a health care program, it usually calculates funding based on Whistler’s population of about 10,000, even though the reality is the local health care system needs to be able to provide for a population of 30,000 or 40,000.

Various provincial governments have had a hand in Whistler’s development – they have not spoon-fed the resort municipality, as some believe – but getting Victoria to understand the unconventional nature of this beast they’ve helped create has proven difficult. With Whistler approaching buildout, and the resort business becoming more competitive than ever, the next provincial government would do well to consider some of this town’s unique needs – so it can remain competitive with other international resorts and so the revenue generated by Whistler continues to benefit the province.

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