Lessons learned

No one is happy with the convoluted, tortuous path the arena issue has taken – or as some have suggested, been driven by the local media – this summer. But as we await a decision by Whistler council, which municipal staff have now decided to move to the Sept. 19 council meeting, we offer a humble suggestion that might help prevent a repeat of this fiasco: whatever is ultimately built on Lots 1 and 9, it should include a speaker’s corner.

A lot of effort has been spent in the last few years on efforts to engage the community, on outreach programs and on communications strategies. Some of those efforts have been successful, but as the arena issue demonstrates, breakdowns or oversights in communications are still a major problem.

By "the arena issue" I don’t mean communications have failed because we don’t know whether people are for or against an arena, or for or against Eldon Beck’s amphitheatre/skating surface which was part of last weekend’s open house. If the matter were that simple a quick poll could determine public opinion and we could move on.

When I say communications have broken down over "the arena issue" I mean that the desperate state some village businesses were in wasn’t understood until the plan surfaced to send the arena south; I mean that as welcome as any efforts to save taxpayers’ money may have been, they were done without consulting taxpayers and finding out what they want; I mean that the "trust us" response when you’ve been caught making deals behind closed doors doesn’t satisfy anyone.

So when it comes time to design whatever it is we decide will provide animation to the village and bring residents and visitors together, why not build the modern equivalent of a speaker’s corner into the design. It could be a video camera that transmits images and audio to a public screen, a computer where people can type their comments and have them go directly to the municipality’s website, a big red phone with a direct line to the administrator’s office, or just a soap box where the aggrieved and unagreeable can stand and vent their frustrations. But physically building a space for communication into the village – as opposed to building communication into a process – could be a lasting, meaningful legacy from the arena debacle.

Speaking of communication and Olympic facilities, a "public engagement session" regarding the athletes village is planned for this fall. The sooner the better.

The size and scope of this project is not well understood yet, but from a financial perspective it dwarfs the arena issue. VANOC’s commitment to the athletes village is $26 million. Another $6.5 million will be provided for First Nations housing and a further $13.5 million will go toward the athlete centre.

The athletes centre is supposed to be a permanent structure, capable of accommodating up to 500 athletes in Whistler for training or competition after the Games. The athletes village must be capable of housing 2,800 athletes and support staff during the Olympics.

The municipality has created an independent business entity, the 2020 Development Corporation, to "facilitate the delivery of the Whistler athletes village for the 2010 Games." The structure is similar to the Whistler Village Land Company the municipality created when Whistler Village was first being developed. The municipality is the sole shareholder in the 2020 Development Corporation but there is no legal or political connection to the municipality.

The work done to date by the board of the 2020 Development Corporation and various committees should be on display some time this fall, but a frank discussion of some of the challenges they face should be part of the engagement session. For instance, how far will $46 million ($26 million + $13.5 million + $6.5 million) go in building the athletes village/athletes centre/new Whistler neighbourhood in an area with no sewer, water, power, gas or roads? Whistler will have some financial leverage through the 300 acres of Crown land it will receive from the province, and the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations are expected to invest in the area as well. But the feeling among some of the people involved is that market housing is going to have to be created to finance the project.

That’s not the end of the world, but it may take Whistlerites some time to get used to the idea. Some may not have accepted the idea by the time municipal elections are held in November. Regardless, it should be part of a frank discussion this fall.

As the arena issue has shown, the public wants to know.

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