hicks steamboat 

THE WHISTLER MODEL By Caroline Hicks Lamont Several years ago, on the cusp of Whistler’s new found international notoriety, Powder Magazine published an article which raved about the resort’s great skiing, night life, accommodation and pedestrian village. The article, however, also went beyond the ski experience and remarked that the town was very much a place without a soul. As a resident and municipal planner at the time, I was incensed. It was obvious to me that the journalist had not ventured past the Village Gondola lift line to develop his opinion. I will admit that Whistler will always have a hard time shaking such a superficial reference as it is a well planned and endowed town with a Euro-Pacific Northwest village, beautiful landscaping, and a wealth of recreational amenities. These attributes have insured that Whistler move to centre stage of the mountain destination resort market. And after living in Colorado, where Whistler’s biggest competitors of Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge are a short drive away, I certainly understand the appeal. Whistler has learned and improved on mistakes of its older cousins south of the border, particularly on the vital issues of village and ski area design, affordable housing, and year round amenities. In addition to the financial advantages (provincial bail-out) and regulatory leniency afforded to Whistler in the past 25 years, it also has a lifestyle-driven metropolitan area and international airport within a two-hour drive, unprecedented ski hill vertical drop and terrain, well planned pedestrian village, skilled labour force, financially strong and diversified ski area operator and unlimited year round natural amenities. An attribute which is often overlooked in ski industry periodicals, however, is the vibrant and vocal local community and the leadership that has helped shape many of the important decisions. The community involvement in the success of the resort is not readily identifiable to visitors. The past few months, with the election and the issues surrounding Emerald Forest, the Whistler South Comprehensive Development Strategy and tourist accommodation, clearly indicate an interested community. Involvement has been constant and persistent, if not colourful, including a spectrum of community interests, which over time has succeeded in making the municipality such a great place to live and visit. During the past 10 years Whistler’s vision has changed from one that was trying to convince the world to come, to being what is now held up as a great ski resort which others hope to replicate. While employed as a planner in the United States, I frequently worked with other planners, developers or designers who, like myself, had been involved in the development of Whistler. Whether a direct result of such professional involvement or a be-product of it, it seems apparent that the success of the Whistler experience is becoming the equation for success all over North America, if not the world. The difficulty is that the templated borrowed from Whistler does not often consider the unique social influences of the receiving town and instead replicates only the readily apparent physical and economic characteristics. For the past 2 1/2 years I have been living in Steamboat Springs, Colorado and directly involved with the city, local merchants and the resort owner in a plan to revitalize the dated and failing base area. It is true that Steamboat could do a lot to improve its tourism experience. The physical environment could use a major facelift, as the architectural design does not reflect the character of the small western town, while grade changes, pedestrian thoroughfares, view corridors, and year round amenities all need to be enhanced to ensure that Steamboat Springs remains competitive. But what we quickly and often learned at public hearings on the redevelopment plan, was that the changes needed to fit the ideals of the community, to ensure that it will succeed not only as a resort but survive as a community. Steamboat Springs has a tremendous past, which has left a legacy of old historic buildings, a wide main street commercial district, a sense of pride, and of course the hot springs. But the community has also been strongly committed to their remote lifestyle, and has nurtured what they had a love for, including nordic skiing, community spirit (Winter Sports Club, Howelsen Hill local ski hill, and the annual winter carnival), a ranching heritage (rodeo and land preservation) and many recreational facilities that only become realities with "barn raising" inspired community participation. The western attitude is immersed in sensibilities and the desire for private competition, while trends such as historic or architectural guidelines were less important than affordability concerns. The final redevelopment plan incorporated many of the site planning principles of the Whistler model, while also introducing many home-grown directions and priorities to ensure the sustainability of the community. If the redevelopment and expansion of other ski resort towns do not look within the diversity of their own communities, and rather only adopt the Whistler physical and fiscal template, many of these destinations similar to Steamboat Springs may be assimilated to a homogenous commodity. Is it appropriate to build mountain resorts which all cater to the same lucrative market share as Whistler, Vail and Aspen? Will even the Mom and Pop ski hills, where most of us cut our first turns, suddenly have mountain villages, condos and The Gap? Or should resort communities instead look first from within and find out what works best for them? Human beings, although creatures of habit, are not formulas, they can get bored easily. There are certain aspects of the Whistler success story that many have overlooked, such as how the municipality, the community, its leadership and designers insisted on certain public facilities to remain in the village, including the municipal hall, post office, medical clinic, church and fire hall. The amenities which developers had to provide to ensure their developments met the goals of the community included school and daycare sites, environmental preservation and local amenity discounts. There was a commitment and dedication to developing a recreation centre, first for locals, and the expansion of the incredible park system and trails, together integrating the natural environment and historical areas. Furthermore, Whistler has affordable resident housing in all types and tenures, located in almost all of the neighbourhoods. Tough decisions, but effective results that many other resorts are envious of when faced with recruiting realities. Whistler no doubt is a very successful resort and community. And it is hoped that the community’s interests and commitment will continue to thrive and that we continue to move away from the character of resorts south of the border and instead harbour our unique Western Canadian lifestyle that was built by ski bums, visionaries and risk taking entrepreneurs. It is clear that when the community is only involved on the peripheral level there is an imbalance which will eventually eat into the financial success of the resort. One only needs to look to Vail, with its down valley housing and employee shortages, to see the effects of ignoring social realties. If the resort development industry and aspiring towns only focus on the economic and physical attributes, their current transformations may lead them to become the resource-driven company towns of the 21st Century. Let’s hope that resort development continues to evolve, encompassing not only the fiscal and physical attributes of success but also facilitating and promoting community involvement. Other resorts can then have a better chance of long term success. At the forefront, Whistler should continue to promote and nurture community involvement to ensure that Whistler is a model for both a destination resort and a sustainable community. Caroline Hicks Lamont has recently returned from 2 1/2 years as the Director of Planning Services for the City of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. She runs a consulting firm, Catalyst Community and Resort Planning, in Whistler.

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