Whistler is much more than just a resort 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROBIN O'NEILL / TOURISM WHISTLER - Whistler village stroll.
  • Photo by Robin O'Neill / Tourism Whistler
  • Whistler village stroll.

For almost as long as the resort of Whistler has existed it has had some sort of split personality.

In days past it was a paradise to the well-heeled ski vacationer, and home to those crazy enough to do anything, and live anywhere, to spend their "days off" cruising some of the best terrain going in North America.

As the resort's reputation went from mogul-sized to mountain-sized, so, too, did the challenges — it's a story we are all familiar with.

But a funny thing has happened along the way, Whistler has also become home to close to 10,000 people — a community that keeps the town ticking, the lights on, the toilets flushing, the grass green, the food and beverages flowing, the vibe vibrating.

And though some have cash to spare, the majority of the locals work hard so they can play harder — or perhaps just sit back and breath deeply of an environment that soothes the soul.

Some have abandoned traditional pursuits like owning a free-market home to stay here — some have even abandoned careers.

To survive, many have to work multiple jobs. Employers routinely hand out tax-forms at the time of hiring making it clear to the newly employed how to deal with this burden when you hold multiple jobs. Many, many workers hold at least two jobs to make sure they get enough hours, and earn enough money to live here.

Most businesses here count on the tourist visitor for their bread-and-butter income (though they ignore the residents at their peril), and this brings with it hardships for line items such as staffing. One weekend you might need everyone you can lay your hands on to work, while on a non-event weekend an owner might be able to handle everything themselves and be home by 9 p.m.

This operational roller coaster is not unique to Whistler, and local government has done much to address it by introducing an extended festivals and events program, but challenges like this mean resort workers and businesses always need a Plan B.

Now perhaps our split personality lies in the appearance of being rich as a community to the outside, while in reality in 2012/13, 28 per cent of permanent residents had incomes, or combined incomes, below the cost of living, according to the Whistler Centre for Sustainability.

Indeed, just last week the president of the B.C. Federation of Labour described Whistler as being, "...very, very wealthy...," then Jim Sinclair went on to add that, "it's also very expensive, so people should be paid fairly."

It is almost an oxymoron.

The reality is that some employers don't offer a living wage — according to the Centre for Sustainability for a single resident that's $12.74/ hr based on 40 hours of work (minimum wage is $10.25/hr). About 25 per cent of permanent residents have incomes, or combined incomes, below the cost of living (2011 stats) with housing, recreation and food items the three largest costs for Whistler residents, in descending order.

The truth is many businesses don't need to offer living wages and conditions. Seasonal workers come for the experience and they put up with sometimes appalling living conditions and low pay as if it were some sort of ritual they get bragging rights to when they leave. In fact according to data from a few years back gathered by the Centre, "... 30% of the seasonal residents with incomes below costs were not willing to work up to 40 hours per week in order to increase their income." Presumably they wanted more time to have fun.

But let there be no misunderstanding — we as a community welcome the thousands of workers who come here every year or so from across the nation or around the world. The seasonal worker is a cornerstone of many a business, including the heavyweight ones in town.

Local government has adopted policies to make sure that there is a community here and according to 2013 data employers reported that 80 per cent of the employees lived in Whistler during that winter season. Among the seasonal workforce, 96 per cent lived in Whistler.

And when some decide to stay forever they find a home packed full of like-minded people who call Whistler home because the unrivalled amenities it offers — amenities that for most part off-set the high cost of accommodation, food, running a business — you name it, it almost always costs more here.

That makes us a very different experience than say some of the U.S. ski destinations, where the resort itself is so expensive only the rich and famous can live or stay there, and all the workers live and spend time in bedroom communities.

Added into this equation now are the Temporary Foreign Workers. Some businesses claim that they are the only option for medium-term reliable workers, or job-specific operations. After all, Whistler's reputation as a pricey place to live makes it unattractive to many Canadians.

As a "small town" it also fights the global belief that there are few businesses that offer a way to "get ahead" in one's career. Whistler is seen as simply a place to stop, have fun, suspend career plans, then move on when it's time to get serious.

Pretty hard to find young committed workers with that attitude abounding. That doesn't mean people don't want to work hard, and given opportunity and a supportive work environment business can enjoy a steady-as-she-goes operation.

Let's not forget that wage-earners here are also spenders — sure we all go to the city to shop, but most day-to-day shopping is done right here at home, and even big ticket items are bought here all the time because locals treat locals well — that's how a community thrives.

It would be great to ditch our split personalities — but the divergence between community and vacation hot spot may just be part of the fabric of our home.

What we can ditch, though, is any lingering doubt that if we don't stand together on creating and sustaining a livable community everyone will pay the price.

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