Legacies soon for Whistler?

There’s been a lot of talk, and some fear, about the Olympic bid and how it will change Whistler if the Games do come to town in 2010. Some of it is understandable; fear grows when there is a dearth of information.

The open houses the municipality held last week regarding the Olympic legacies certainly didn’t answer all the questions about the bid, but they did shed some light on some important aspects of the bid – and "bid" is the key word.

There are several things Whistler would like from the provincial government in order to ensure its long-term viability and control its future, and three of the most important items on that list are expected to be granted in the next 12 months. Indications are they will be granted because Whistler is part of the Olympic bid, and they will be granted prior to the awarding of the 2010 Games in July 2003. In other words they will be available whether the bid is successful or not.

The three "legacies" Whistler expects to receive in the next year are a land bank, expansion of the municipal boundaries and new financial tools – the ability to impose a tax on tourists.

At first glance this doesn’t sound like exciting news. Whistler has been pursuing some of these things for years, but that’s the point. These things were identified and made part of Whistler’s long-term plan well before the Olympics even began to be considered.

There have been other legacies offered to Whistler only if the Olympic bid is successful. Funding for a multi-purpose complex on Lots 1 and 9 and the second phase of the conference centre renovations, which are estimated to cost $15 million, would only be provided if the Games are awarded to Vancouver and Whistler.

But the other items will help Whistler control its future as early as next year. The ability to impose a new tax is something Whistler has been pursuing for years. The pursuit began in the mid-80s when the Whistler Inc. campaign was taken to Victoria. The result was the 2 per cent hotel tax.

More than five years ago, after most of the members of the present council toured American mountain resorts, the municipality began to build another case for a resort tax, something that would lessen the burden on property owners. The recently completed KPMG study, which quantified Whistler’s contribution to the provincial economy, is one of the keys to that argument.

The Liberal government has indicated that it would allow municipalities new financial tools through its community charter, which would replace the Local Government Act, but that charter is still some ways away.

Likewise a land bank – crown land for the athletes village that would become social housing and/or community facilities – is something that the municipality has been trying for years to convince the province it would be wise to provide Whistler. When you look at the difficulties in creating employee housing in the Whistler market and consider how much progress has been made on this front in recent years, it’s all the more amazing when you realize the province has played virtually no role in creating that housing. Most of it has come from Intrawest, service charges on developments, private developments that included a mix of employee and market housing, and the work of the Whistler Housing Authority.

The land bank – and there are four site options – would be the site of the athletes village, should we host the Olympics, but it could be available for employee housing prior to the Games and would be employee housing in perpetuity after the Games. It may be that the athletes village will be a combination of permanent and temporary housing, but as the Whistler Housing Authority says, setting aside land is the first big step in providing employee housing.

The Comprehensive Sustainability Plan will help determine how much employee housing is needed.

Finally, the proposed boundary expansion takes a new approach to map making. Rather than drawing straight lines on a map, the proposed boundary expansion would follow the peaks and ridges of the surrounding mountains, to include all the watersheds in the Whistler and Callaghan valleys. The thinking is that Whistler should be able to control what goes on in its watersheds, including having a greater say in logging.

These things may not satisfy concerns about the Olympics, but indications are they will be provided to Whistler regardless of whether the bid is won or lost. If that comes true, the bid will have been worthwhile.

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