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A company town: Can Whistler incorporate The Corporation? By Stephen Vogler There's a buzz around town lately and it's not the sound of Canada geese heading south for the winter. It can be heard in the cafes, the bars, in the village square and on the bus. It's emerging from conversations, debates, speculations and rumours, usually in a somewhat hushed tone as though some invisible presence might be listening in. People are wondering, and for good reason, how the corporate merger between Whistler and Blackcomb will affect their lives this winter and for years to come. The balance that existed between the two mountain employers for the last 17 years is gone. The separate entities of Whistler, the family-owned ski operation, and Blackcomb, the newer corporate kid on the block, have disappeared with the latter's parent company, Intrawest, one of the largest resort-owning corporations in North America, assuming control of Whistler Mountain earlier this year. People are wondering what it will be like to live and work in a one-company town. What kind of new relationship will develop between the community and the single largest employer in the valley? I phoned Intrawest and presented them with a few questions. I wanted to know where they feel the balance between employer and employee will come from now that there are no longer two companies competing side by side. I also wanted to know whether a public company like Intrawest, which trades on the Montreal, Toronto and New York stock exchanges, has a responsibility only to its shareholders, or if it has a responsibility to the community it operates in as well. Unfortunately, Hugh Smythe, president of Intrawest’s Resort Operations Group, was away and the vice presidents who were presented with the questions were unable to respond. Undaunted, I took my tape recorder into the village and presented the same questions to a variety of people. Cindy Thomson has lived in the valley most of her life, coached junior racing for the Whistler Mountain Ski Club for five years and currently waitresses at a village restaurant. "When you decrease the competition for good employees," she said of the corporate merger, "then you just take the status quo, that's one thing. The other thing is that the pay can decrease because there's a monopoly on the job market. It's almost like Disneyland, you know, the employee experience: come to Whistler and we'll give you the odd free jug of beer and you can make $7.40 an hour and you can live with 10 other people." "I like to think they (Intrawest) have a certain amount of responsibility to the community because they rely on the community for man power. Part of the community is its healthiness, which includes health aspects and park aspects and a certain quality of life. All those kinds of things are part and parcel of having happy, healthy employees who can provide a good service — which in turn would make the stock holders more money, you would think, but I don't think everybody thinks that way." Marvin Hirano, a bike shop owner in the village, sees the relationship between employee and employer a bit differently. "I would say it's more of an employees' market, because basically they need them. I don't think that they (Intrawest) have a lot of power because they're at the mercy of the transients. I think the only people it's going to affect is the middle management guys." As far as having a responsibility to the community goes, Marvin agrees with Thomson. "They have a major responsibility to the community because the community is the mountain. That is one area that they don't seem to pay enough attention to." Charlie Doyle is a long time Whistler resident who owns a sign making company and is the former publisher of the legendary Whistler Answer. "There isn't truly a balance," he said of the new arrangement. "That's one of the problems of one-company towns. The balance before came from the fact that somebody could go across the valley and get a job with the other company if they happened to run afoul of an individual manager. Now they would have to leave town to find another job in the ski industry. "Certainly they (Intrawest) have a responsibility to Whistler. I mean, that's where it's all taking place. Whether or not they have a legal responsibility, they certainly have a moral one. Otherwise it becomes like the old coal mining towns in Wales, which was basically slavery... I don't think the corporation is necessarily here to serve the community, but they definitely have to be a part of it and they have a moral responsibility to support the community. And not just to the tune of rebuilding Creekside or something like that. I mean, they mask their real estate developments as a service to the community; it's got to go deeper than that." So what exactly is a corporation's responsibility to the community it operates in? Some would say Intrawest has already fulfilled its commitment to Whistler by helping to develop a successful resort, providing jobs and economic spin-offs to the community. Others would argue that the corporation made the bulk of its profits on real estate in the upper village area — from land and zoning that was granted by the community — and that it now owes something back. Determining who benefits from the tourist dollars that now roll into town is another matter that is open to interpretation. The corporation attracts millions of dollars worth of business to the resort and employs thousands of workers, but how much of that money is staying in the community and how much is returning to shareholders? A large percentage of visitors this winter will be staying at one of Intrawest's hotels, skiing on one of their mountains, eating at their restaurants and shopping at their stores. As for the employee who lives at staff housing, buys staff meals, clothes and ski equipment, there are very few dollars that don't return directly to the corporation. But if a corporation were to return some of its profits directly to the community in which it operates, how could it reconcile that with its responsibility to its share holders? In a recent speech to the Canadian Club, Courtney Pratt, president of Noranda, said: "The fundamental responsibility of any corporation is to create value for share holders. If we're not profitable, we can't do anything for society." He went on to say: "I believe that for us to deliver to our shareholders, we have to work with our stakeholders. We have to work with them in partnership." By stakeholders, he means groups such as employees, customers, environmental groups and communities in which corporations operate. Working in partnership with the community of Whistler might be more involved than simply returning a percentage of corporate profits to local charities and organizations. It might involve working with the needs of the community in terms of environmental concerns, keeping the resort from growing beyond a manageable and healthy size, paying employees a fair wage that matches the high cost of living in the valley or providing job flexibility that suits the unique needs of the local population. Basically, listening to, and acting on, the needs of the stakeholders in the community, even if those needs occasionally cut into the immediate profits of the share holders. Courtney Pratt's comments were prompted by his acknowledgement of the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in Canadian society, which he calls "disturbing" at a time when there is more wealth in the world than ever before. Speaking as the leader of one of Canada's biggest corporations, his comments raised some eyebrows among his peers. After all, he is coming from a world in which CEOs get multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses if they can increase share profit, whether it be at the expense of tens of thousands of jobs, the environment, or anything else. In that kind of corporate climate, it's unlikely that shareholders in Toronto, New York or Tokyo would care much about the fate of Whistlerites when they glance at the stock market charts. The bottom line mentality of the average share holder is not easily reconciled with the needs of people or communities at the working end of the corporation. Nonetheless, it is that corporate world which the community of Whistler will have to forge some sort of relationship with. If the words of Courtney Pratt find any kind of ear in the boardrooms of corporate Canada, perhaps Whistlerites will have a certain amount of influence on the decisions made at Intrawest. On the other hand, the traditional bottom line thinking of the corporate world will likely exercise its own influence on the community. The relationship that develops between the people of Whistler and the largest employer in town will likely be an intense one that continues to change and evolve over the years. As long as people feel free to speak openly about their concerns, it could even grow into a healthy relationship.


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