More questions than answers, and no time left

In the late 1970s, when the first Whistler councils were cobbling together the infrastructure to sustain a new municipality, a proposal call went out for concepts for the village to be built on the Whistler garbage dump. Some of the drawings that were submitted look, in hindsight, hilarious for the architects’ lack of vision. There was one drawing that depicted a conventional grid of eight square blocks, with car parking allowed on all the streets. Another had an artificial lake at the foot of Whistler Mountain, about where the Westin now sits, that would have been drained in winter to provide parking.

None of these designs reflected the vision Mayor Pat Carleton and the other leaders of the day had for the village, so they rejected them all. The ideas presented just didn’t measure up to the potential Whistler’s first council members saw.

Reading the municipal staff report on the Paralympic arena, and listening to the discussion at Monday’s council meeting, one is left with the same feeling Carleton and others had in the 1970s: staff and consultants have been presented with a problem and have returned with several traditional answers, none of them satisfying. But unlike the 1970s, this council, with the exception Monday of Kristi Wells, seems to be willing to accept that.

The Paralympic arena has become the lightning rod for public frustrations this summer, but whether an arena would solve Whistler’s problems or not is now almost irrelevant. The issue is how we got to this point, where after months of closed-door meetings a staff report on a major municipal project becomes public just three weeks before council is to make its final decision.

Ever since word leaked out at a June SLRD meeting that Whistler was considering giving up the Paralympic arena to Squamish, the message from council members has been: "When you see the financial numbers you’ll understand. We can’t afford it." The numbers finally were made public with the staff report this week. They certainly support that conclusion and the staff recommendation that Squamish should build the Paralympic arena. And in exchange Whistler expects to get $8 million towards a $10 million practice rink.

But it’s a thin 10-page report – backed up by a three-year-old study and other consultants’ work that remains out of public view – to hang a $20 million decision on. The parameters for the study were so narrow they couldn’t help but lead to the conclusion Whistler can’t afford the Paralympic arena. The options looked at were entirely conventional and only addressed VANOC’s needs for a 3,500-5,000 seat ice arena. The staff report does not show any attempt to incorporate the municipally-owned Lot 9 commercial property in the project. Public-private partnerships are discussed in the abstract but there is no evidence a partnership was pursued. There was no consideration in the staff report of how the numbers would work if a long-term tenant for the building was found, as Squamish has apparently done. The medical community, for instance, has some ideas for expansion of the Whistler Health Care Centre. If the arena were next door to it, on Lots 1 and 9, the potential exists for a high-performance sports institute.


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