Time to look at the long-term picture


Whistler’s two-month old, but still very new, council is off on a retreat with senior staff this weekend to hammer out goals and priorities for the important next three years. Presumably they will also be thinking well beyond 2009 when they establish those priorities.

Big-picture, long-term strategy sessions are never easy, but the group now at the helm of municipal hall is full of new faces, people in new positions, new energy and, by most indications, an understanding that they have to get along in order to move things along.

The environment they will be working in during their term is also fairly well established. The provincial government has a majority and a mandate that exceeds council’s by six months. The provincial economy is also booming and is expected to do so for some time.

The new federal government, while a minority and with many objectives that differ from the previous crew in Ottawa, has pledged to maintain or increase planned revenue transfers to local governments and to maintain previous Olympic commitments. Most pundits are also assuring us that Stephen Harper’s government will last at least two years.

On the local level, things should also be fairly clear. After four straight winters of declining visitor numbers the issue of the November municipal election was, in Mayor Ken Melamed’s words, the economy. After a frighteningly warm week immediately before Christmas, the snow has come in consistent, abundant dumps, thus providing the foundation for a good winter of business.

But it will take more than one decent winter to recover from four poor seasons. Discounted hotel rooms have also played a role in this winter’s encouraging start. And with increasing competition from other B.C. resorts, it may be some time before accommodation rates return to where they were a few years ago.

A simple business analysis suggests that Whistler’s capacity for accommodation exceeds the number of people now visiting on a regular basis. And there is more accommodation being built, both within and just outside of municipal boundaries. This isn’t something the new council can undo, and in fact may be needed in the long run. But it will take some time to re-build business to match the resort’s capacity.

That’s a task that isn’t and shouldn’t be in the hands of municipal council and staff alone. Tourism Whistler and Whistler-Blackcomb are the organizations with the primary responsibility of attracting visitors and, by extension, boosting the local economy. But likewise, it is not their problem to face alone.

It’s a problem for everyone in Whistler. Of course it’s not always fashionable to admit you are in the tourism business but we are, all of us. Landlord, back-hoe operator, pro boarder, barista, real estate agent, environmental consultant, liftee – we’re all in business because this town is in the tourism business, and it hasn’t made any significant effort to diversify into another industry.

That doesn’t mean Whistlerites have to genuflect to every tourist they see. And it doesn’t mean residents can’t be themselves. But anyone that wants to live here should recognize the premise that this place is based upon. And then understand that that business is still well below where it needs to be.

This might be one of the themes from council and municipal staff’s retreat: Do people really understand the current situation? Probably not. Most of us have some idea of our own financial affairs and prospects, and perhaps some colleagues’ situations, but for an overall portrait of the Resort Municipality of Whistler in 2006 we have only brochure photos.

Council and senior municipal staff aren’t being asked, and shouldn’t be expected, to fix things all by themselves. But as community leaders they can help us understand where we are right now, offer an honest assessment of why things have dropped off in recent years, and then solicit ideas for what should be done, what the town’s priorities should be and how they could be achieved.

Council already has some big issues that require attention; Lot 1/9, the Rainbow proposal and the athletes village among them. But it also needs to look beyond the immediate issues and the deadlines imposed by the 2010 Olympics. If everything is a priority there is little opportunity to look long term.

Under the Community Charter, a sort of state-of-the-community report and town hall meeting are required annually. We haven’t seen either for a while now. Municipal budgets, which show long-term spending and priorities, also seem to be coming later in the year, and hence there is less time for public review before adoption.

Despite all the work on the CSP, Whistler’s long-term plans and priorities are not as clear as they should be. Rectifying that should be one of the outcomes of this weekend’s retreat.

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