Whistler makes an impression at UBCM 

Local, regional officials raise community concerns at annual convention

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF BC GOVERNMENT - IMPRESSION MADE Premier John Horgan addresses delegates at the Union of BC Municipalities convention in Vancouver.
  • PHOTO courtesy of bc government
  • IMPRESSION MADE Premier John Horgan addresses delegates at the Union of BC Municipalities convention in Vancouver.

In 2015, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) created an economic flat sheet highlighting its recent financial successes.

The numbers will be familiar to Whistlerites by now: $1.52 billion in annual provincial GDP, 23 per cent of B.C.'s tourism export revenue, $1.37 million in daily tax revenue generated locally (more can be found at www.whistler.ca/business/economic-development-whistler).

RMOW officials have not been shy in using the figures to promote Whistler, and in particular the benefits of the province's Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) funding program, designed to grow tourism in B.C.

But the figure most indicative of the RMI program's impact concerns return on investment — every year, Whistler sends $140 million of tax revenues back to the province, and pays off the provincial RMI investment (about $6.6 million in 2016) by January 14.

That figure in particular was impressive to Premier John Horgan, who met with RMOW officials for the first time at the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) convention in Vancouver on Sept. 28.

"His eyebrows went up and he just chortled, and he said 'that's amazing, this is a no brainer,'" said Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, describing the conversation.

Both the ministers of tourism and finance had similar reactions, leaving local officials confident in the program's future.

"Everybody we spoke to we let them know that we're going into the budgeting process now, and we need some certainty," Wilhelm-Morden said. "And we heard informally that we will hear (about the future of RMI) very soon."

Wilhelm-Morden said Horgan also made note of three things the RMOW was seeking in regards to RMI: extension of the program, moving it from contingencies to an actual line item in the ministry budget, and increasing the amount.

"I think we really left a good impression with the premier," she said, adding that Horgan even made two specific shout-outs to Whistler in his Sept. 29 UBCM speech.

"One of them was he was talking about affordability, and then he said 'And I have to give particular tribute to the RMOW, they're recruiting in changing times to keep the economy going,' and he said 'the benefits of Whistler are felt in every corner of this province.'"

RMOW CONSIDERING OCP UPDATE

The meeting with Horgan may have been a highlight, but it was just one productive session in a packed week for local officials.

A meeting with Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Selina Robinson brought Whistler's long-gestating Official Community Plan (OCP) back into the conversation.

The OCP was approved in 2013 and nullified the next year by a B.C. Supreme Court decision. The judge cited a lack of consultation with local First Nations on the part of the province in his ruling.

"(Robinson) was very well aware of the issue, and she knew that we had been participating with Whistler Blackcomb, the First Nations and the province in connection with getting the Master Development Agreement (MDA) approved," Wilhelm-Morden said.

The MDA was signed this spring, accompanied by a Memorandum of Understanding between the parties that included a commitment to cooperate on the local OCP.

The province still needs to consult with First Nations, and the RMOW will be meeting with both parties in the meantime to keep the project moving.

But there will likely be more work to be done internally around Whistler's now-dated OCP, Wilhelm-Morden said.

The RMOW is considering updating the 2013 document.

"We need to go to the community and do some consultations about the OCP, and look at perhaps some additional amendments just to bring it up to speed, because of course times have changed quite considerably since 2013," Wilhelm-Morden said.

After the 2014 Supreme Court decision, the RMOW reverted back to its 1993 OCP — a document it's been working from ever since.

"It hasn't been a problem for us to date, but we do know of significant land owners who are waiting, who will require OCP amendments if they want to have their lands rezoned or dealt with in some way," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"They have been patient so far, but you just wonder how long that patience will extend."

The hope is that Whistler's OCP will be in place within six months, the mayor added.

WILDFIRES STILL TOP OF MIND

Predictably, one of the biggest topics at this year's UBCM was the 2017 wildfire season — the worst in the province's history.

"There were certainly very good lessons learned from the areas of the province that were under attack, and places like Kelowna went straight from flooding to fire season in the blink of an eye," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"You have to be flexible and on your toes and be able to change your focus almost literally overnight."

A FireSmart committee is being formed provincially to share some of the lessons learned this year with all communities, Wilhelm-Morden said.

"There will be more follow up with us and with our emergency planning coordinator to see what we can incorporate into our various plans," she said, adding that, for now, Whistler will continue addressing its own wildfire risk in "a very serious way" through planning, management and fuel thinning.

The mayor also brought the issue of wildfire up in her meeting with Horgan, she said, pointing out how much the RMOW has committed to mitigation ($6 million over 10 years).

"We think we are at risk, and what we need from the province is two things: more money, but more importantly than more money, we need a multi-year commitment to funding," she said.

"When it's on a per-project annual basis we can't achieve the cost benefits that we would receive otherwise, plus it doesn't make sense. This is an ongoing problem, so let's have an ongoing commitment."

Horgan told the mayor the latter point was one that had not yet been raised with him, and that he would be speaking with the relevant ministries.

PEMBERTON AND THE SQUAMISH-LILLOOET REGIONAL DISTRICT

It was a productive UBCM for governments beyond Whistler as well.

"They seemed quite receptive and responsive and anxious to listen, now we'll see what the response to our thoughts and concerns looks like," said Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman.

Some of the Village of Pemberton's (VOP) concerns included enhancing road safety and cycling infrastructure, overcrowding recreation sites like at Joffre Lakes and passenger rail from the Lower Mainland to Lillooet.

Some were more specific to Pemberton itself.

"One example of that is we shone a light on our Pemberton Creek bridge, which has been a bit of an issue over the years," Richman said, noting that the bridge is built low and has the potential to cause flooding.

"That's a very specific item to us that we brought to the Ministry of Transportation."

Other topics up for discussion included wildfire, cannabis legalization and the province's ongoing opioid crisis.

On the last point, the VOP lobbied for continued funding for the Child and Youth Mental Health and Substance Use Collaborative, which was previously funded by Doctors of BC, Richman said.

"This is a way of getting to youth and children before they develop these kinds of habits, or as they develop them, so we feel that the province should pick up the funding on this collaborative," he said.

Many of the issues raised by Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) at this year's convention — like regional transit, passenger trains and cycling infrastructure — were similar to other communities in the region.

"I felt like ministers were incredibly receptive. It was an encouraging week," said SLRD chair Jack Crompton.

Because it's a new government, many of the answers the SLRD got were about arranging follow-ups with government staff, Crompton said.

"But it is the kind of work that ends up in very concrete, headline-making actions in the future," he said.

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