Seasonal-staff housing missing from Vail Resorts' plans 

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I come in praise of the Vailborg. Seriously. Well, mostly seriously.

Let's be honest, for just a minute; it won't hurt. Much. Our new corporate overlords have done some good things this season. For one, they've been grooming things that haven't been groomed very often in the past. It seems I've seen frequent grooming down Heavenly/Brownlie Basin. As grooming goes, it's been unobtrusive, leaving wide parts of the basin untouched. I've been surprised more than once to find the Weasel and Fall Away groomed. And there have been days when the best, least-travelled way down Blackcomb at the end of the day has been a long swath of grooming on Catskinner, Upper Gearjammer (!) and Lower Gearjammer.

This is not a paean to grooming. And I'm not suggesting they go crazy, notwithstanding the VailFolk seem to prefer those smooth runs. There's still plenty of off-piste, untouched terrain out there to enjoy. But with the added grooming, it's easier to avoid those who flock to smooth corduroy like moths to light. Moths who don't necessarily fly very well.

I also praise the legerdemain of what I think of as the Great Disappearing Skiers. With all parking lots full, there seem to have been numerous days that featured skiing right onto lifts. Where did all the people go? Many seem to have gone to Symphony. This is supposition on my part because I don't go over there. Too dangerous. Crazy. Crowded. But overall, there seem to be way fewer people than the packed lots suggest.

They've retained Whistler Blackcomb (WB) pass products for another year. While the plan to grandfather existing Parent passholders seems shortsighted, at least there remains hope.

They've been generous extending their lifetime passes for those with 25 years of service—even retroactively—and offering a lifetime pass to partners.

And then there's the $66 million they plan to pump into the uphill transportation system this year. Whether you agree or disagree—or are seriously conflicted like me—they're at least not treating the mountains like a milk cow ... as previous owners have. They're investing real dollars and showing they care about the future.

I'm not personally excited about the six-pack at Green. Don't ride it much now; will probably ride it less as a six. But it's a busy chair and the increased capacity will help keep those who ski that zone in that zone, which benefits those of us who avoid it. But really, I'll be curious to watch the gong show of trying to get six people organized with a maze still only on one side. Given the total lack of understanding demonstrated this season by people trying to load a quad, I suspect the screw-ups will be far in excess of the 50 per cent increase in seating.

I don't really care about the revamped Catskinner chair. As was stated at the WB open house last week, it's really all about beginners and the terrain park folk. And where they're placing the load, it won't serve any of the runs now served by Solar Coaster.

And to be totally honest, the new 10-person gondola is as much about sightseeing as skiing. I suspect it'll be busy in the morning with a severe fall off later in the day. Why? Because very few people will be willing to endure the inconvenience of loading at midstation. Those skiing the Solar zone—who aren't infatuated by gondolas or are unfamiliar with the remaining lifts—will tend to ski down to Excellerator and back up it and Jersey. A hassle, but way less hassle then loading the midstation.

And then, there's the suspension bridge—the scary walkway planned for Whistler Bowl. Not sure it's part of this spending but it was part of last Thursday's open house. It's a novelty, in the best spirit of roadside attractions, and has absolutely nothing to do with skiing or boarding and everything to do with scaring the pants off sightseers and answering the competitive call of the Sea to Sky Gondola's suspension bridge.

So, totting up the score, we see the trend of the future ... and it is sightseers. Not, I suspect, unlike the bizarre group of Koreans clogging up the off-load area in front of the Olympic™ rings outside the Roundhouse last week doing, really, Tai-Chi? Or, as we like to say, breathing in the full offering of Whistler's unique mountain culture. The words "right kind of tourists" are ringing in my ears.

Sadly missing from the $66-million capital plans is the most vital element necessary to ensure the success of all this investment. Seasonal-staff housing.

Much has been said and written about Whistler's current housing nightmare. Lost in the noise is this: It has never been, and hopefully never will be, part of the RMOW's plan or responsibility to house seasonal employees. Both rental and ownership properties on the Whistler Housing Authority books are for full-time, long-term workerbees and retirees.

As the town's largest employer of seasonal staff, Whistler Blackcomb—in its historical incarnations—has built housing for them. But none has been built for almost 20 years and what there is is inadequate. The implications of the acute shortage of housing for seasonal staff have been seen in spades this season on the mountains. Lifts, mostly T-bars, not operating. Serving stations at on-mountain restaurants not open because of lack of staff. The ticket kiosk at Excalibur not open on one of the busiest days of the year, shortly before Christmas. No staff. Numerous volunteer jobs gone begging. No staff.

And that's just mountain staff. The same shortages plague retailers and restaurants all over town.

But WB is unique. It has places more housing could be built. It has capital. It has an acute need. And stepping up to that challenge will benefit not just WB but every other business in town.

So where's the plan. All the efforts and all the spending to bring more tourists and more Epic™ passholders is going to be for naught if there isn't the staff to ensure they have a top-notch experience. Housing is the number one reason people don't come and people don't stay to work. All the hoping in the world isn't going to put a dent in that equation.

There are only two ways it will get better. One is for WB to commit to building more staff housing. The other is for visitors to get so dismayed at the level of service they stop coming. Hmm... eenie, meenie, miney, mo....


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