Editorial 

Other issues in the year ahead

The first things on most people's minds when looking forward to 2010 are the Olympics and Paralympics. But after they're over in March there are several other big issues that will impact Whistler in the remaining months of 2010 and possibly for years after. Here are two.

The first is the hotel/accommodation sector. For much of the last two years Whistler hotels have been selling rooms at discount rates, sometimes deeply discounted rates. That has helped bring people to Whistler, which is good for everyone, particularly those who are not in the accommodation business. Getting people here, which generally means having a place to stay, is the first step to getting them on the mountains, on the golf courses, in the shops and restaurants.

But hotels can't survive forever if they're letting rooms go at $100 a night and they're only occupied every other night, on average. Neither can property managers. Neither can the owners of the hotel rooms.

And at those rates and those occupancy levels, there aren't many people interested in buying a condo-hotel room, so the real estate market doesn't do well either.

But there are also various levels of government dependent on revenue from those same hotel rooms. The municipality currently receives a six per cent hotel room tax, based on what the hotel charges for the room. The owner of the hotel room also pays property taxes to the municipality, with the rate varying based on how many nights per year it is occupied.

The municipality still feels it was screwed by the provincial government on the hotel tax classification issue and is trying to convince Victoria to look at it again. The decision, which based on 2007 occupancy and room rate levels meant the RMOW "lost" $2.2 million in revenue in 2008, is going to be an uphill battle to undo. It pits the Resort Municipality of Whistler and perhaps a few other municipalities dependent on tourism that also have significant numbers of strata-titled hotels, against the thousands of owners of strata-titled hotel units. Which group has more votes in the next provincial election?

On top of this, the province is bringing in the harmonized sales tax on July 1 and no one really knows how that will affect the hotel tax. It likely won't mean any less hotel tax is collected, but who receives it will not be clear until the provincial budget is released in February.

There is also - still - the issue of multiple property managers in one strata-titled hotel building with only one front desk. This has been an issue for Whistler for years - a guest arriving at the hotel he's staying at but having to go elsewhere to find the manager of the unit and be issued the key. It's gotten better, but it's still a problem.

The answer to some of these issues is to grow the number of visitors, increasing occupancy levels and slowly building the rates back up. But that's going to take time. And the strong suspicion, given that summer occupancy levels average less than 50 per cent and winter occupancy levels are usually less than 60 per cent, is that Whistler is just overbuilt.

The issues surrounding accommodation, one of the fundamental tenants of Whistler as a resort, need to be examined and some modifications need to be made.

Another fundamental looks more promising: the matter of Whistler employees finding a permanent place to live.

The Cheakamus Crossing and Rainbow neighbourhoods are making home ownership a reality for hundreds of Whistler employees and their families. The immediate impact should be an increase in the number of Whistler employees who live in Whistler, not just at the two new neighbourhoods but also in the suites and condos that these people will give up and that then become available to seasonal workers.

But the longer-term impact may be that a new generation of Whistler residents finally feels they have a stake in the community. Home ownership can do that. When people who are unsure whether their future lies in Whistler or elsewhere have the opportunity to purchase affordable housing - affordable by Whistler standards - most decide quite quickly that it's in Whistler.

A mortgage is a monthly reminder that you have financial as well as emotional ties to a community. Most of the aging Whistler population knows this, but with Cheakamus Crossing and Rainbow a new generation of residents will come to understand it.

And in time the next generation of local politicians, board members and business and community leaders will likely come from, or at least need the support of, residents of these neighbourhoods.

 

 

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