Pique N' Your Interest 

Affordability in a resort town

The debate is raging in coffee shops across Whistler. Should we allow a huge London Drugs to come to town?

As a reporter I give my usual stock answer when asked how I feel about the situation.

"I don’t have an opinion. I see both sides of the story, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera."

And then someone asked me a question that got me thinking: "Would you shop at London Drugs if it were in Whistler?"

The answer, of course, is I would most definitely shop there. I would argue that only the most principled of us wouldn’t shop there.

Now I don’t know if that answer necessarily means I’m in favour of London Drugs coming to town.

But as I listen to people talk about the issue one thing becomes abundantly clear. People are fed up with the high cost of resort living.

And, more importantly, it’s hard to turn up your nose to cheaper prices and better selection when you live in a place like Whistler.

My answer to the question got me to thinking about the age-old question of affordability in this town and why, despite all the calls for action, despite all the lists that have affordability as a top priority, still nothing tangible seems to have been done to address the problem.

It’s top of the mind these days as 29 unionized municipal workers battle the RMOW for more wages. Their argument is they need a cost of living allowance to support the high cost of living in a resort community. Whether you agree with them or not, one thing is for certain. It’s expensive to live here.

And to some extent, so it should be. This is one of the best places in the world to live. We have top mountain biking and skiing in our backyards. We should pay a premium for that luxury.

Most of us pay a big price by giving up any chance to buy a free market home, choosing instead to a wait at least more than two years to buy into employee housing.

Our problems are not unique.

Only today I heard a report on the radio about someone paying $300 a month to live in a closet, A CLOSET. No, it wasn’t in Whistler. It was in London.

But in London, along with the museums and art galleries and nightlife and shopping and theatre, there are options. You can buy cheap groceries. You can go to the Dollar Store or whatever the British equivalent is. You can shop around. You can hit the markets and the second hand stores.

That is a luxury we don’t have.

As it has for the past two years, council has again listed affordability as one of its top three priorities. The others are Whistler 2020 and the Olympics. "Affordability, including affordable housing, will continue to be a major focus," states this year’s budget.

This is followed by a list of nine 2005 actions under the Resident Affordability Strategy of our new planning document, Whistler 2020.

This is the fruit of a lot of hard work, time and energy from community members and is valuable information. I would argue however that many of the action plans don’t seem to have a lot of teeth. Take these as an example:

• communicate affordable recreation opportunities;

• communicate affordable RMOW recreation pass discount pricing structure;

• communicate liveable wage information to local businesses;

• increase communication regarding affordability programs to Whistler’s youth.

I would argue that’s just more talking and not a lot of action. That’s not helping me pay for my groceries or shampoo and soap.

There are two interesting action items on the list which I’m keen to see move ahead, actions that I think could make a serious difference. They are:

• explore the opportunity to provide financial incentives to local grocery stores for keeping a basket of basic food items comparable to the Lower Mainland benchmark; and

• expand the Re-Use It Centre with an outdoor covered area.

Well, my grocery bills haven’t changed much in recent months. And there certainly is no outdoor covered area at the Re-Use It Centre, a frustrating reality for someone renovating their house, forced to take good stuff to the dump because there is no room for it at the second hand store.

It’s almost June. Let’s get on with it.

Whether or not we decide to allow a 17,000 square foot London Drugs to come here as one of the solutions to our affordability problems remains to be seen.

And that’s a debate we’ll be sick and tired of by the end of all the public hearings and open houses on the issue.

I’m glad it’s not my decision to make. But if I was making that decision and I voted against the move, I’d have some pretty good plans to address affordability in my back pocket.

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