Editorial 

The S word in context

A series of forces converged in Whistler this week as the town played host to the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, where mayors and councillors from across the province came to raise concerns and gather information about provincial policies.

From the downloading of policing costs to the end of BC Rail passenger service to the apparent privatization of B.C. Hydro to money promised for the Olympics, councillors are worried. In the midst of a major restructuring program by the provincial government, most are also struggling with a weak economy and a substantial slowdown in the traditional resource industries.

Against this backdrop, Whistler made a presentation to UBCM delegates on its sustainability initiatives. While it is a matter of fact that the globe cannot sustain the current North American standard of living indefinitely, you have to think the S word means something different in, say, Williams Lake than it does in Whistler. It’s not likely Williams Lake is contemplating $1.5 million "green" fire halls or $1 million Web sites.

From the perspective of Williams Lake, or Cranbrook, or Terrace, the economic leg of the sustainability stool would seem to be the one to focus on at the moment.

Even in Aspen, admittedly no longer the model for mountain resorts and located in a region where there are different factors affecting its economy, financial concerns are at the forefront. The City of Aspen, like some other Colorado mountain towns, is forecasting reduced revenues this year and budgeting accordingly. Aspen will cut 4 1/2 staff positions and is concluding a multi-year, $100 million capital program.

Colorado mountain resort towns are of particular interest to Whistler because much of their municipal revenue is derived from resort sales taxes, a system Whistler would like to explore.

Meanwhile, Whistler’s municipal budget – which like all Canadian municipalities’ is based primarily on property taxes – has increased annually in recent years and will likely climb again next year as property values continue to escalate.

There are many reasons property values continue to climb in Whistler, but two of the most significant are that Whistler’s economy is based on tourism rather than traditional resource industries and the self-imposed cap on development.

Whistler is a unique creature but it isn’t always popular with its fellow UBCM members. In the midst of the current economy, Whistler is looking for more "financial tools" from the provincial government as part of a package of legacies for hosting the 2010 Olympics. It’s unlikely any agreement would be announced in the middle of the UBCM, when other municipalities are clamouring for funds to keep court houses, schools and health care facilities open and the benefits of the Olympics are questioned by some.

But Whistler council is also unlikely to officially endorse the Olympic bid before the legacies issue is resolved. And if it’s not done soon the bid book could be submitted to the IOC without Whistler’s endorsement.

Still on the financial front, other municipalities may see that Whistler has just given a lukewarm response to a development proposal that includes about $7 million in direct contributions to community facilities.

In many respects, Whistler has never been in a better position to attract investment and to extract concessions and benefits from both developers and the provincial government. But it has also exposed itself by committing to expensive capital projects in what is now considered by most to be a time of restraint.

Whistler is fortunate to be faced with some tough choices on the Olympics, on development and on sustainability. Those choices wouldn’t be so difficult in Williams Lake.

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