Balancing the community's principles - business still has concerns

"Whistler will be the premier mountain resort community. We will continue to build a thriving resort community that emphasizes the quality of life for its residents and respects the diversity of its people. We will develop and implement long-term growth management programs that move us toward environmental sustainability and help us achieve financial stability. We and our visitors will enjoy an optimum mix of world-class recreational opportunities and first-class service in a rugged mountain environment unique to Whistler."

- Whistler 2002 Vision Statement

On the face of it the May 21 council meeting, where members of the business community jammed council chambers to demonstrate the need for employee housing, should have cleared the air on the subject. Perhaps it helped, but I can't help feeling the business community and council still aren't quite on the same page.

Council members, each of whom spoke at the meeting, acknowledged the need for employee housing and, just as importantly, the need to stick to the principles adopted by the community. Those principles are summed up in Whistler's Vision Statement above. It's the difficult job of balancing those principles that I think is still questioned by the business community.

Maybe it stems from the sloppy, imprecise term "employee housing" we've all been using. "Employee housing" can mean everything from the single family homes at Lorimer Ridge, to the 19 Mile Creek project, to staff housing at Blackcomb's Base II, to the Beaver Flats project and the housing planned for Spring Creek. Several of these are projects this council and the previous council had the vision to build, and for that they should be commended. But the message the business community is trying to get across is Whistler needs more housing for frontline, seasonal employees - the people who make the cappuccinos, fold the T-shirts and serve the beer. These are the people who represent Whistler to most of the visitors to this resort.

There are efforts underway to create new partnerships with Mount Currie, a stable, existing base of potential employees who already have housing. There are some great opportunities for both Mount Currie and Whistler in this type of partnership, but is it the solution for those businesses that hire seasonal employees? Perhaps temporarily, but many businesses say one of the key things they are looking for in seasonal employees is enthusiasm, people who are excited to be in Whistler and to make the most of their time here. Mount Currie residents can do that as well as anyone, for a season or two - then they move up to middle management positions. As Ed Pitoniak and others have said, the community needs the energy that a fresh group of seasonal employees brings to the resort each year.

A large part of the Whistler economy is based on gung-ho, seasonal employees. Many business owners have said the enthusiasm is not there anymore, that the word has gone out Whistler is a tough place to live. That is why there is a need for more rental employee housing and why the business community showed up at municipal hall May 21.

The majority of council and the housing authority board of directors have said they turned down the original Whistler 3 and Zen proposals, which included rental employee housing, because the projects did not meet the criteria set out in Whistler 2002, the OCP, the CDP, the comprehensive transportation strategy, the financial plan and the draft Whistler Environmental Strategy. Fair enough. Projects should pass or fail based on how they stack up against Whistler's guiding principles.

But where I think the business community remains concerned is with some of the messages sent at the May 21 and April 30 meetings: The suggestion that Whistler can't build its way out of the employee housing problem, that Whistler keeps building employee housing but the number of businesses needing employee housing keeps growing.

Maybe these ideas are correct, but they hadn't been expressed publicly until this past month, which is why the business community is still feeling unsure; which is why more dialogue is needed.

There seemed to be almost a sense of relief among some councillors at the May 21 meeting when Doug Forseth of Whistler-Blackcomb, towards the end of his remarks, told council: "As much as we need employee beds, I'm not an advocate for beds at any cost."

There probably wasn't anyone in the room that night that would advocate building employee beds at any cost. But a couple of council members seized on that statement from Forseth in their remarks, while no one commented on another part of his address: that Whistler-Blackcomb subsidizes employee housing to the tune of $1,100 per employee.

Councillors challenged the business community to step up and be part of the housing solution - which many have, buying houses so their staff have a place to live. But how many local businesses can afford to subsidize staff housing at the rate of $1,100 per employee?

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