Budgeting for change

Olympic gold medals, which we now know are worth $20,000 Cdn., are won in hundredths of a second or millimetres — tiny fractions measured after years of sweat and effort to be just that little bit faster, stronger, better than other competitors.

The incremental increases in putting on the Olympics are measured in whole numbers that are somewhat larger, but they too may be measured after years of sweat and effort.

Early in 1998, the year Vancouver and Whistler edged out Calgary and Quebec City for the right to put forward the Canadian bid for the 2010 Olympics, British Columbia was a very different place. Then-Premier Glen Clark said: “The overwhelming advantage to hold (the 2010 Olympics) is the jobs, the investment, the exposure, the potential for tourism outweighs any provincial government cost with respect to infrastructure that might be incurred…. The Olympic Games are the perfect venue to support B.C.’s effort to grow jobs.”

Jobs, of course, are not an issue today; finding enough people to do those jobs is the problem. Investment, exposure and the potential for the tourism industry remain valid reasons for hosting the Games.

The Olympic bid didn’t make many headlines and really wasn’t on many people’s minds in early 1998. Only two or three news organizations from B.C. even sent reporters to Toronto for the Canadian Olympic Association’s meeting that November. Toronto was still a frontrunner for the 2008 Summer Olympics and some questioned why the COA was even dealing with a 2010 bid while Toronto was still in the hunt for 2008.

The Vancouver-Whistler bid looked considerably different back then. Among the promises was a new national integrated alpine ski training centre at Whistler — Whistler still hadn’t struck out in its efforts to put on early-season World Cup races and Alpine Canada was less entrenched in Calgary.

But more to the point, everything proposed was on a smaller scale. In what now seems a quaint notion, proponents talked about the bid working within Whistler’s official community plan and its cap on development. “We can have an intelligent, low-impact Games without having to change our lives for years,” one Whistler advocate said. The board of the bid society was listening to Whistler’s concerns and was finally getting the message that building a new athletes’ village, that would become employee housing after the Games, wouldn’t fly. Moreover, employee housing had to be dealt with long before 2010.

Plans called for housing 1,000 athletes, coaches and trainers in existing hotels in the village that could be cordoned off and secured. Only 500 accredited media were expected in Whistler — and this was when the plans still included freestyle skiing and snowboard events in Whistler, although the bobsleigh track was going to be on Grouse Mountain.

The athletes’ village is now being built to accommodate 2,500 athletes, coaches and trainers. VANOC is attempting to secure hotel rooms for 1,500 accredited media in Whistler.

The world has changed at least as much as Whistler’s Olympic plans in the last decade. Everything from 9/11 to relations with First Nations to the invention of skicross has had an impact on plans for the 2010 Olympics.

The opportunities, as outlined by former premier Clark, are still there. In fact, there may be more opportunities than were recognized in 1998. The involvement of the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations in the Whistler community and the town of Squamish’s involvement in the Nordic centre come to mind.

But none of these opportunities come for free.

As plans for hosting the Olympics have changed, so too have Whistler’s plans to take advantage of the opportunities that come with the Olympics. Incrementally, the master plan for Whistler has become more complicated, messier. Where once there was a general understanding of how big Whistler would become and some feeling for what it would look like at buildout, the Olympics are taking us to buildout-plus.

And it’s not just that there will be more development in Whistler. On the other side of 2010 some parts of the Whistler model will change. There will be more opportunities for visitors to spend time outside the village area, more commuting up and down the Sea to Sky Highway, possibly more absentee business owners, likely more retirees. And certainly there will be increased competition for people’s recreation/vacation time and new challenges brought about by climate change.

Juxtaposed with this changing, evolving picture of Whistler is a constant. Back in 1998 Whistler’s year-round hotel occupancy rates were a little over 50 per cent and the town was roughly two-thirds of the way to buildout. Today, the year-round occupancy rate is a little above 50 per cent and building is starting to wind down.

It is against this backdrop that we, collectively, must weigh opportunities and future financial commitments.

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