Friends in high places

That’s a neat arrangement that the province and VANOC announced Tuesday, a deal to take 320 temporary housing units from the Whistler athletes’ village after the Paralympics are over and re-distribute them as 156 units of permanent affordable housing in six communities around the province. Everyone wins from this Olympic legacy.

Except there could have been a lot more winners with a little more effort.

It’s not our goal to rain on a project that works for a lot of people, particularly after all the money that has flowed into Whistler in preparation for the Games. But the irony cuts deep: the province, VANOC and Olympic sponsors making an announcement about temporary housing being built for Whistler a month after a heroic effort by small businesses, the chamber and the municipality failed to produce the temporary housing that is desperately needed in Whistler in the lead-up to the Games.

Couldn’t this deal have been expanded to bring additional temporary housing to Whistler the next two winters, and then that housing be redistributed to more B.C. communities after the Paralympics wind up?

According to a press release, the agreement was almost two years in the making. However, it was little more than a year ago that the IOC announced that VANOC was going to have to increase the capacity of the Whistler athletes’ village. Temporary modular housing units were settled on as the choice and a contract with Britco to provide the units was signed in January of this year.

It was in February of this year that the Whistler Chamber of Commerce launched the temporary housing initiative that became known as the Phoenix Project. After clarifying and satisfying some concerns, the municipality, the chamber, the Holborn Group and the community bought into the idea of temporary housing. While a chamber committee hammered out the financial details the RMOW worked on the zoning and the business community prepared to put up money. Working without assistance from senior levels of government — as has been the case with most of the affordable housing projects built here — Whistler was solving its shortfall of seasonal employee housing. It wasn’t a done deal, but thanks to the best efforts of a lot of people, it seemed to be moving ahead.

That was confirmed in May when rezoning was proposed, and approved in July, to allow the project to grow from 210 beds to 308 beds. SG Blocks was chosen to provide the housing and a problem that was increasing in scope even as this temporary solution was being hammered out seemed to be resolved.

And then, in mid-August, the first hint of the credit crisis appeared when a Canadian bank refused to finance SG Blocks. Suddenly seven months worth of work was gone and the scramble was on. Proposals from other modular housing providers, likely including Britco, were evaluated but a deal was not to be found in time for this winter.

While Whistler did appear, up until August, to be resolving its shortage of seasonal employee housing on its own, it doesn’t sit well that two months later the province, VANOC and various Olympic sponsors announce a deal to do exactly what Whistler was trying, but failed, to do. Something about friends in high places.

It rankles even more each time we hear of someone losing their accommodation in Whistler while their landlord attempts to cash in on the Games.

Speaking of high places, Wall Street financiers are supposed to make a decision today about the $1.6 billion debt the parent company of Whistler-Blackcomb’s parent company is responsible for. Fortress Investment Group has a lot of assets, but it also bought a lot of debt when it took ownership of Intrawest in 2006. Much of that debt is tied up in real estate at various Intrawest resorts, and recreational real estate is not the hottest commodity at the moment.

Reports quoting financial analysts Wednesday — Fortress representatives have refused comment — suggested a refinancing package was close, with just one lender holding out.

But in the current economy Intrawest’s debts are a long-term concern and may eventually force a restructuring of the company. That could mean selling off some resorts or some real estate holdings; it might mean taking on new partners. It’s not going to mean radical change at Whistler-Blackcomb, at least not this winter.

However, it does raise the question of who controls the primary asset that draws people to Whistler and what local control of that asset would be worth.


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