Maxed Out 

The nature of the beast

By G.D. Maxwell

"I'd call him a sadistic, hippophilic necrophile, but that would be beating a dead horse." - Woody Allen

At the risk of beating yet another dead horse, I feel obliged to spend one last week noodling about the World Economic Forum before moving on to a cute story about Zippy the Dog. For those of you who could care less about the subject – and I fear that is a staggering percentage of the population – my apology. Whipping this beast yet again undoubtedly breaches some intrinsic agreement we have about not dwelling too long on political topics.

On the other hand, I’m compelled by those who ask, "What’s the big deal?" to at least touch on the pros and cons of inviting the WEF to come share our little slice of heaven. "An informed rabble is an aroused rabble." I don’t know who said that; maybe I did.

Make no mistake, this is a big deal. We aren’t inviting the Rotary Club to hold their annual meeting here or the Chicken Farmers of North America or some other prosaic group. This is one of a kind and it comes with lots of baggage, some of it good, some of it bad.

The World Economic Forum could be a profound blessing for our town. It will expose us to several thousand very influential people, their families, entourage and bodyguards, who will tell their friends, who will tell their friends, who will tell their friends what a great place this is. Some of these people will want to bring other conferences to our town; some might even come back to ski. Some will be so smitten with us they’ll buy a big house on the hill, pay taxes on it and use it a couple of weeks each year.

A couple of thousand journalists will come with them. They come not because of anything intrinsically interesting about the WEF. Indeed, for most of its existence, the WEF laboured in relative obscurity. Navelgazing conferences tend not to draw journalists. The ink-stained wretches come for the car crashes, the protests, the hope of bloody violence. That’s their nature. It’s also their nature to file some story, any story to justify their trip. Barring bloody violence, some of those stories will cast Whistler in a very positive light, after all, this is one great place.

A large number of security forces will round out the immediate WEF family. They will not likely be moved by the beauty of our town, the quality of our snow or our overall friendliness. They will be the same people with the same fire extinguisher size pepper spray canisters who greeted peaceful protesters in Vancouver at the OPEC summit. And at the G8 meeting in Quebec. You either love ’em or hate ’em.

The WEF will bring $15 million in provincial and federal money for renovations to our conference centre. We will be left with a world class, environmentally friendly building. Its revenues still won’t cover its operating costs but such is the nature of the beast.

If the WEF comes to town, it will alter the nature of Whistler’s relationship with its senior levels of government. It has already altered that relationship and it’s impossible to consider the potential positive aspects of that change without gazing at the mirror image, negative aspects.

Gordon Campbell has already invited the WEF to come. If Whistler pulls the plug on the WEF, Gordo is going to look like a fool – yes, I know what you’re going to say; don’t bother. If Whistler makes Gordo look foolish, it’s hard to imagine him feeling particularly warm and fuzzy about moving his government any closer to granting us the "financial tools" we desperately need to sustain what we’ve built without inflating property taxes to the point where none of us can afford to stick around to see what happens next.

And don’t believe for a moment the Little Guy from Shawinigan doesn’t have some ego tied up in the idea of having the world’s movers and shakers adopt Canada as one of its home bases. Life is much easier on the Friends of Jean list than it is on the Enemies of Jean list.

So snubbing the WEF will mean more than just not getting what one writer so aptly termed a "boob job" for the conference centre. We will be pissing on some big dogs.

Unlike most cost/benefit analyses – where the costs are easily quantifiable but the benefits are speculative – the costs of hosting the WEF are more difficult to assess. They embrace risks and changes that may or may not occur to greater or lesser degrees.

The risk of violence is, perhaps, the most profound risk. Whistler is a playground. It is quintessentially frivolous. People come here to escape the real world, leave their worries and woes behind them and immerse themselves in sport, nature, indulgence and, yes, even decadence.

Whistler is the last place in the world they want to see on their evening news. Images of protest and violence are not Whistler. The taint left behind by the kinds of images that came out of Seattle, Genoa, Quebec City, would be more damaging to our town than it was to those cities. Our only reason for being is to cater to the holiday fantasies of the hundreds of thousands of people who come here every year. Those fantasies do not embrace violence and protest.

More fundamentally, Whistler is not Davos. Whistler is a ski town. This is still a place where skiers and boarders come for the ride of their lives. The beautiful people we attract still tend to be pretty hard-core riders. We are not Vail; we are not Aspen; we are not Deer Valley. We are big mountains, solid snow, a well thought-out village, a vibrant community, a memorable experience. We are a place people come to indulge their passions, not a place they come to be seen, to strike a pose, or to close a deal.

Say Davos to most skiers and images of Prince Charles, fat cat bidnizmen and dilettantes come to mind. Economically, maybe that’s what we want to become. But let’s not labour under the illusion it will have no effect on the heart and soul of this town and let’s not kid ourselves – it’s not what we’ve spent 35 years aiming for.

Whatever happens, the people who make up this community will rise to the task. But both the benefits and the risks surrounding this decision are profound, neither should be trivialized. At the end of the day, our elected officials will make the final decision. I don’t envy them their job. Many voices should be heard on this issue. Make yours one of them.

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