Real tests coming next two weekends

A week from today, 40,000 people will begin the migration to Pemberton, for the first Pemberton Festival. Tomorrow, several thousand people will start moving up the Sea to Sky Highway for this weekend’s Whistler Music Festival.

And how we — Whistler, Pemberton, Squamish — deal with these two festivals will be carefully watched by many, including organizers of the 2010 Olympics, media, police, festival organizers everywhere and numerous people who haven’t made up their minds about where to be in February 2010.

The next two weekends’ music festivals are not official Olympic test events; the first of those was last February when Whistler hosted alpine World Cup races. People may remember: the races went off without a hitch, and hardly anyone in the valley noticed. That wasn’t a problem for VANOC, whose primary duties are to put on the Olympic events, make sure they look good on television and cater to the needs of the Olympic family.

Those of us living in the corridor have other priorities. They aren’t necessarily incompatible with VANOC’s priorities, they’re just different.

The music festivals, much more than last winter’s alpine World Cup races or next winter’s World Cup events at the sliding centre and Nordic centre, will be a test of how the corridor, and residents of the corridor, deal with volumes of people and international attention.

The Pemberton Festival numbers frame the story: 40,000 people in party mode for three days. About half of them will camp at the festival site, the others will commute to the site — many, it’s hoped, by bus. Food, water, beer and toilets will be brought to the site or serviced daily to meet the needs of the 40,000 festival-goers. Medical staff, security and firefighters add another 750 people to the mix. Then there are the 70 bands and DJs playing the festival, as well as their support staff and entourages.

It should all come together and be so successful that everyone will want the festival to become an annual event. But like the Olympics, it’s not something non-festival-goers will be able to ignore. It’s going to require some modification of normal routines.

While getting 40,000-plus people and their equipment to Pemberton is going to be a test, the Olympics will push the envelope a little further.

The total capacity, for spectators, media and athletes, of the five Olympic venues in the Whistler area is 55,500: 12,000 at each of the three Nordic venues and the sliding centre, and 7,500 at the Timing Flats on Whistler Mountain, where the alpine events will finish. There will be three-five events in the Whistler area each day during the 17 days of the Games, but since there are qualification rounds in some sports it’s unlikely every event will be sold out.

Olympic organizers have estimated the maximum daily population in the Whistler area during the Olympics will be 70,000 people. That figure includes residents, second-homeowners, friends and family, seasonal workers, day visitors/spectators, athletes and their families, sponsors, media, Olympic officials, seasonal workers, security, and VANOC’s workforce.

A couple of points to remember: these numbers are for the Whistler area rather than Whistler Village, meaning the Nordic centre in the Callaghan Valley, the sliding centre on Blackcomb and the Timing Flats at Creekside. Organizers estimate 25 per cent of that total — 17,500 people — could be in Whistler Village on a daily basis during the Games. Whether spectators commuting from Vancouver to the Callaghan to watch cross-country races ever get to Whistler Village remains to be seen. They will have the option to take a bus to the village, but it will likely be an additional cost.

Second, these 60,000-70,000 people will be moving around in the winter, when the roads are a little slicker than they will be for the Pemberton Festival. The highway between Horseshoe Bay and Whistler will be expanded and improved by then, but it will still be the single artery connecting the Whistler area with the Lower Mainland.

And, of course, during the Olympics people will have the same needs and service requirements as during the Pemberton Festival — food, water, beer, toilets etc.

It’s hoped that the Pemberton Festival and the Whistler Music Festival become annual events. And following the Olympic Games and the attention they bring, the corridor may have additional opportunities to host large spectator events. But much depends on how we handle the events of the next two weekends.


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