The Paralympic arena as a symbol of our times

Years from now, if historians want to look back at the state of affairs in Whistler in 2005, they could start their field research in Squamish, at the Paralympic arena built there.

The value of the arena, and where it should be located, could be debated ad infinitum, and indeed may be. But the facility has also become symbolic of how Whistler today spends so much time chasing its tail.

Monday’s council meeting began with questions from members of the public about the arena: where it was going to be built and how the decision to move it to Squamish came about without informing the pubic (even though officially no decision has been made). This prompted Mayor Hugh O’Reilly to read a prepared statement that was so ambiguous one person who was at the meeting and heard the statement didn’t know what it meant or what direction council was leaning until he talked to Pique’s reporter the next day.

Meanwhile, councillors weighed in. Ken Melamed said the public was just going to have to trust council on this one. Gord McKeever called for (and won support for) a public open house on the arena.

Later on, Marianne Wade asked that municipal solicitors review what discussions can take place in committee meetings and what discussions should be part of regular public council meetings, the inference being that more discussions should be public.

The debate revealed, again, some of the divisions and frustrations among council members. There are also frustrations among some business owners in the village.

A couple of weeks ago a Dialogue Café on the mix of retail operations in the village and what sort of constraints should be put on them led into discussions about how businesses were suffering after four consecutive winters of declining numbers. The village itself was cited as part of the problem. Originally designed to be the focal point of Whistler, where residents and visitors mixed together, it has, in several business owners’ opinions, become stale. Some residents seem to take pride in proclaiming they don’t visit the village anymore. Building the arena on Lots 1/9, some village business people feel, would help bring back vibrancy to the village.

Other business people have noted the absence of major festivals or events to draw tourists this summer, and the slow, unsteady growth of the organization that was supposed to spearhead such things, the Whistler Events Bureau.

As mentioned earlier, the arena itself is only symbolic of people’s frustrations and may or may not be part of the answer to Whistler’s problems. The real issue, for many, is that business sucks. The downward trend has been going on for four years now and not enough is being done to reverse it. While Whistler has spent more than three years working on Whistler. It’s Our Future/the CSP/Whistler 2020, the actual resort operation has been suffering. For some businesses, Whistler is becoming unsustainable.

Before the problem can be addressed one first has to recognize there is a problem. That in itself may be an issue. McKeever was the only councillor to take in the Dialogue Café and get a first-hand sense of village merchants’ frustrations. But it is also incumbent upon businesses to make their frustrations known. For too long too many have sat on the sidelines and watched, rather than participated in finding solutions.

In the meantime, a final decision on the arena has not been made, although everything is pointing to it being built in Squamish while Whistler will get a second ice sheet, likely at Meadow Park, and an expanded athletes centre. Most council members appear to be in agreement with this proposal, and suggest that when the numbers are finally made public it will make sense to everyone. That’s a frustrating answer, particularly given that Whistler has been grappling with some other important issues for a long time with no resolution – financial tools, affordable housing, seniors housing, Class 1/6 tax classification, boundary expansion, to name a few.

But the arena issue has underlined Whistler’s immediate problems and the apparent disconnect among various groups and brought them to a head. It would seem to be time to bring these groups together, to understand one another’s problems and focus on solutions. Perhaps something like the town hall meetings Whistler used to have would be in order.

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