The countdown begins in earnest


Happy New Year. One countdown over, another one marches on.

There’s always a lot of anticipation leading up to midnight on Dec. 31. The preparations, the expectations… and every year when the clock strikes 12 people cheer, you get a kiss and then it’s all over. It’s not just that the buildup exceeds the expectation, we often overlook that it’s the getting there that is the important part.

And so it is with another countdown, the one leading up to the 2010 Olympics.

The dawn of 2007 finds Whistler barely three years from hosting the 2010 Olympics. But it’s not the Games themselves that we have to focus on — there are people who will take care of that — it’s what we do over the next 36 months that should lay the foundation for the following decade or more. That includes what we build and how we handle all that building.

The arrival of 2007 means there are only three summer construction seasons left before the Olympics, and they promise to be a frantic three summers.

Again, it’s not the Olympic facilities that we need to worry about. Construction of the Nordic centre, alpine skiing runs and bobsleigh track are all on schedule and should be ready for competitions by the end of the year. Likewise the athletes’ village is on schedule for completion in 2009. It’s a huge construction project but with a deadline carved in stone and people around the world monitoring its progress it will get done.

What should be of interest to Whistler is the combined impact of all the other construction expected to take place over the next three summers. That list includes a number of yet-to-be-approved projects, such as the Rainbow housing development, Cressey’s redevelopment of the Shoestring Lodge property and the Holborn group’s redevelopment of the tennis resort. There are also several major construction projects underway, including the library, the First Nations cultural centre, the Evolution condos at Creekside and various components of the Nita Lake Lodge project. And of course there’s the municipal hall renovation and expansion and the Olympic medals plaza on Lots 1 and 9 in Village North. There are also a few original buildings in the village that should be renovated prior to 2010 and there’s always the possibility that Petro-Canada will rebuild at Creekside. And now there’s the First Nations’ proposed golf course and townhomes in the Callaghan, although only the golf course is expected to be finished by 2010. Absent from this list is any new development of housing for seasonal employees. At the moment there aren’t any proposals.

Some of these developments will be finished this summer and some that haven’t been started or approved may be put on hold, or possibly even scrapped altogether. But the point is, the construction industry will be under a lot of pressure in Whistler — as it will be in Vancouver and elsewhere in B.C. and Alberta — over the next three years. The construction boom in Western Canada, coupled with a shortage of labour, is something we are all going to have to learn to live with. The first signs were there last summer.

One of the biggest construction projects in the corridor, the Sea to Sky Highway upgrade, which will continue through 2009, was accused of “stealing” workers from Whistler construction projects last summer. There may be more of this type of “recruiting” within the construction industry over the next three years, but it affects other industries, too. Some Whistler restaurants had trouble finding staff last summer because trained chefs and experienced waiters could make more money pounding nails for a few months — and still come back to work in the restaurants in the winter. The net result, in some instances last summer, was that restaurants were closed an extra day each week.

The simple solution, some would offer, would be for restaurants and retailers to employ staff year-round and pay wages competitive with the construction industry. But of course it’s not that simple. If there was enough business year-round restaurants and retailers would be fully staffed year-round.

The challenge for a resort community like Whistler that continues to grow, is to maintain or improve its level of service — the frontline workers in the tourism industry — while all around it a construction industry desperate for labour flourishes.

February 2010 is circled on a lot of people’s calendars as a goal, a date to have everything ready. But the next three years is the time when Whistler will be challenged. And how we deal with that challenge will go a long way toward determining Whistler’s success after 2010.

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