Whistler building in a tight market

One of the many paradoxes that face Whistler as it enters a vortex of development over the next three and a half summers is that while hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on development projects here, the community is still scrambling for some basic facilities, like expansion of the sewage treatment plant, expanding the health care centre, space for community organizations and, to some degree, affordable housing.

As the site tour of the Olympic Nordic centre, sliding track and athletes’ village showed again this week, nearly half of VANOC’s venue construction budget, more than $250 million, will be spent in Whistler. But that doesn’t represent total spending on the Olympic facilities; VANOC’s contribution to the athletes’ village is in the neighbourhood of $36 million but the village itself, much of which will become resident-restricted housing after the Games, is estimated to be about a $130 million project.

What happens on Lots 1 and 9 in the village is also still up in the air three years and eight months before the Paralympics start. If Whistler decides to build the sledge hockey arena it will receive $20 million from VANOC. If we decide we can’t afford it – and the silence from municipal hall and long delayed open house on the project strongly suggest there’s some re-thinking going on – there may still be some VANOC money for an ice sheet.

Regardless of the arena decision, there is a strong sense that now is the time to build on the last undeveloped parcel in the village. Municipal hall is bursting at the seams; the museum, the arts council and other community groups are looking for space; and there is a feeling among some that Whistler needs a front door, a place to officially welcome the world.

Other multi-million-dollar construction projects expected to happen over the next few years include the First Nations Cultural Centre, the redevelopment of the Shoestring Lodge site, Intrawest’s third lodge at Creekside, redevelopment of the tennis resort, the Mount Whistler Lodge subdivision and several affordable housing projects. The Rainbow development leads this list, but also in the mix are Don Wensley’s 30-unit building in Function Junction, Intrawest’s Cedar Glen development in Spring Creek and more units tied to the Nita Lake Lodge.

Add into the mix the ongoing projects – the library, Nita Lake Lodge, Green River Estates and, of course, the highway upgrade – and it’s a great time to be in the construction industry. Which means it’s a tough time for other businesses to recruit employees. Some restaurants are reducing their hours this summer because they can’t find enough staff; kitchen workers are pounding nails.

The development boom/labour shortage also means premium prices on construction projects, including civic projects such as Lots 1 and 9 and the sewage plant expansion.

Despite the increased hotel tax revenue Whistler will soon receive, there is no huge reserve of cash at municipal hall for construction or operation of new municipal facilities.

While there is lots of interest in Whistler, and in development projects in Whistler, right now – from the federal government, provincial government, VANOC, the IOC, First Nations, Intrawest – these groups are looking after their own interests first. For Whistler to meet its facility needs and interests in the next three years it’s going to have to get creative. In simplest terms, that means P3s.

That doesn’t necessarily mean following the recently rejected model for the sewage treatment plant expansion. It means taking advantage of the opportunities that come with the interest in Whistler and the 2010 Olympics.

A review of the corporate supporters of the Torino Olympics and what they contributed to the host communities might reveal opportunities to meet some of Whistler’s needs. But there may also be solutions closer to home.

Construction labour costs in the Lower Mainland and Sea to Sky corridor are huge at the moment, but they may be significantly lower in places like Lillooet and Quesnel. Developing a modular construction industry in the Interior to meet the demand elsewhere would help spread the Olympic legacy throughout the province.

The virtues of modular construction in home building are well known: building in a controlled environment can reduce costs and improve quality and consistency as compared to building on-site. Some of those benefits may be realized in modular construction of larger, institutional buildings as well.

There will be hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into Whistler’s super-heated construction environment over the next few years, most of it from organizations with deeper pockets than the RMOW. For Whistler to meet its needs in this timeframe will require some creative thinking.

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