The big picture and the little town in the big picture

"Whistler is an experiment, and if it is successful we expect to incorporate other communities that have a similar problem, places such as Tofino that have a small residential community but thousands of visitors in the summer."

Those were the words of Municipal Affairs Minister Jim Lorimer on Sept. 6. 1975 at the swearing in of Whistler’s first council, which included Mayor Pat Carleton, and the incorporation of British Columbia’s first resort municipality.

Carleton, who died Monday, served as Whistler’s mayor from 1975 to 1982 and, with aldermen Garry Watson and Al Raine, played a critical role in the early days of the experiment. The decisions made by these three, who served on the first three Whistler councils, (Carleton was mayor for the first five councils) were fundamental to the development of Whistler Village and the resort. They created much of the model – specific design and use guidelines on development parcels, warm beds above retail space in a pedestrian village, resort associations – that Intrawest now takes to other resorts, which is why Intrawest often gets credit for building Whistler even though the company didn’t get involved locally until the mid-80s.

Some years ago the Whistler experiment was deemed a success and now, 29 years after Lorimer spoke those words, the provincial government is encouraging resort development across the province. But Whistler is still part of an experiment. The objective, in many people’s minds, seems to be to be ready for the Olympics in 2010. All kinds of things will happen in preparation for the Games, and the decisions made between now and then will shape Whistler for years to come.

But there are a lot of other forces at work, and preparations being made, for Whistler and the corridor regardless of the Olympics. A recent report called A Region in Transition, produced by Urban Futures for the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District and its regional growth strategy, is a reminder that (most of us) will be older by the time the Olympics roll through the corridor, and there is going to be a lot more of us. The report projects the corridor’s population to double – from just over 30,000 residents to more than 62,000 residents – by 2031. The rate of growth is expected to go from its current 0.8 per cent annually to nearly 3 per cent annually in the next decade, before declining to about 2.3 per cent.

Urban Futures also found that in Squamish and Pemberton the largest 20-year age group is 35-54 year olds, making up 35 and 37 per cent of the populations respectively. In Whistler, however, the largest 20-year age group is 15-34 year olds, comprising 44 per cent of the population. How much of Whistler’s current 15-34 year old population will remain in Whistler is an interesting question. In most towns that sort of demographic anomaly would have to be considered for a whole generation. But it may be that about 40 per cent of Whistler’s population is always in the 15-34 year bracket, it’s just replenished with new people every year. As Ed Pitoniak and others have said, the influx of seasonal workers – most of whom are in the 15-34 group – every year is important to the vibrancy of a resort town.

Meanwhile, more than one quarter of Pemberton’s population, 26 per cent, is under the age of 15. With limits on growth in both Pemberton and Whistler, as well as increasing housing prices, the likelihood is that many of those people won’t be able to stay in the area.

But there will be new people moving to the corridor; both full-time residents – particularly in Squamish as the highway improvements bring the town closer to Vancouver – and part-time residents. A quick inventory of real estate projects in Squamish and Pemberton and Olympic projects in Whistler shows, the construction industry is going to be busy for quite a few years to come.

There are other factors that may affect the experiment as well. Volume 1 of Whistler’s Comprehensive Sustainability Plan, Whistler 2020: Moving Toward a Sustainable Future , lists some of the global trends, including: growing competition for market share; climate change; rapid technological change; changing tourism partners; a growing wealth gap; and global socio-political insecurity. The list might also include rising energy costs and the role of First Nations.

The external pressures on Whistler and the corridor are coming from all directions. This area is not going to remain how it is, or go back to how it was. We have to deal with that, and one of the ways to do that is by remembering who and what made this a desirable place to be whenever it was that we decided to stay. Keeping those elements and those people is the real experiment leading up to and beyond 2010.

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