Pique n' your interest 

The Oh-lympics

On Monday, municipal council at last voted to endorse the Vancouver 2010 bid after months of negotiations with the province over Olympic legacies. The council and mayor voted 6-1 in favour of a resolution to support the games, with Ken Melamed casting the only no vote.

The decision attracted national and international media attention, but there wasn’t much high-fiving in the streets.

Council can be congratulated for sticking to their guns and getting the best deal possible for Whistler from the provincial government, but for most people I’ve talked to the typical reaction to the announcement was a big fat "oh." No exclamation point or question mark.

Maybe an event that is still almost eight years down the road is too distant to expect any real enthusiasm.

For the transient workers, 2010 is about as important a number as the square root of Pi – even if such a number existed, it’s doesn’t affect life a whole lot.

As for the long-term people, let’s just say that some of us have more pressing things to worry about.

Like, will we even be able to afford to live in Whistler in another eight years? Check out the classified section under long term accommodation and you’ll see what I mean – home ownership is a pipe dream for people who can easily spend half their paycheques to rent a tiny basement suite.

The Olympics will generate some affordable staff housing, but that’s something we need Thursday, not in 2010. By then it will be too late for many of us.

Affordability and employee housing is quickly becoming the leading campaign issue in the Whistler municipal election, but it’s not like you can fault previous councils for doing nothing. It’s just that the supply they created just can’t keep up with the demand.

Part of the reason for the shortage is the simple fact that Whistler’s population is growing. Between 2000 and 2001, the permanent population increased from 9,676 to 9,965. It’s hardly a refugee crisis, but we needed to create 289 more employee beds just to keep up, and there was already a shortage to begin with.

Another reason that council can’t keep up with housing demands – and I refer you once again to the classified section – is that there is no longer any affordable housing in the valley that isn’t specifically designated and controlled as such. Rent costs are going up, and there are fewer low-end rental properties available every year.

The smallest, most dilapidated A-frame will fetch more than half a million dollars these days because the land is so valuable. Developers can afford to buy these properties, tear the existing houses down, build larger residences, and still manage to sell them for a sizeable profit. With that kind of money floating around, landlords don’t have a lot of incentive to rent their places anymore.

I have already heard stories of homeowners and investors using the Olympics as a basis for speculation.

Past examples in Salt Lake City and elsewhere have shown that real estate prices spike immediately after the announcement that a bid is successful, and then gradually slip back to "normal" levels – some Whistler owners are waiting for prices to peak so they can cash out.

While this kind of speculation puts some money back in the economy, it does little to meet the long-term needs of Whistler residents and transients.

One developer recently commented that it was "morally wrong" that resort employees were reduced to squatting on a piece of land he wants to build on, and suggested that Whistler’s employees would be better off moving to Pemberton and Squamish.

The fact that we might not want to move is irrelevant, he said – it just isn’t realistic to expect to be able to live here forever with the real estate market being what it is.

It was a brutal but honest appraisal of my own chances for making it in Whistler, and a good example of the kind of capitalist thinking that this council, the next council, and the council after that are up against.

Can the Olympics turn things around for resort employees? Or will we lose more housing than we gain as a result of all the ensuing speculation on real estate?

There are no guarantees either way, so "oh" is about all you can say.

Another reason for the lacklustre response from residents these days is the fact that it really isn’t Whistler’s Olympic bid any longer, no matter how emphatically we are reassured otherwise.

The moment they dropped Whistler’s name from the bid – IOC rules – local interest dropped with it. It is now Vancouver’s bid, and Whistler is just a satellite venue; Park City to the Salt Lake City Games in 2002; Nakiska and Canmore to the Calgary Games in 1988.

Another issue contributing to the oh-factor is the fact that two events that would be of special interest to the Whistler audience, namely snowboarding and freestyle skiing, were moved to venues closer to Vancouver in the early days of the bid site selection process.

That’s not to say that the Nordic, Alpine and bob/luge/skeleton events aren’t exciting, but take a look around – snowboarding and freestyle skiing were made for this town.

Of course, the highway and the ability to fill stands with thousands of spectators were factors in the decision to move these events.

And that brings us to the next "oh" – whether we win the bid or not, we’re likely going to be subjected to years of highway construction and build-up for a two-week event. Not something that many of us are looking forward to.

While you could argue that highway improvements were inevitable, there’s no question that the Olympics helped set the wheels in the motion, making the highway a priority in the eyes of the province and federal government.

So when the Olympic organizers are wondering why the champagne corks weren’t popping and Main Street wasn’t shut down for an impromptu street riot on Monday, they’ll know why.

Maybe we will be able celebrate the Olympics when it’s all over. If we’re still around to celebrate, that is.

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