Whistler's Olympic spirit wavers
Hosting the 2010 Olympic Games will test the patience and pocketbooks of Whistler residents and business owners.
Seattle Times staff reporter
2010 OlympicsDates: Feb. 12-28.
Whistler-area sports: Bobsled, luge, skeleton, alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, ski jumping.
Vancouver-area sports: Hockey, speedskating, short track, figure skating, curling, freestyle skiing and snowboarding.
Northwest Travel Guides
WHISTLER, B.C. —
The day British Columbia won the 2010 Winter Olympics, an elbow-to-elbow crowd in Whistler Village broke out in a 10-minute ovation. A conga line snaked past a maple-leaf flag nearly as big as a house.
Fast-forward six years, and Olympic fever in Whistler feels more like a hangover — six months before the Games even begin.
Gripes about the Olympics and the local costs to put them on fill letters-to-the-editor pages, online petitions and the bar stools around Tapley's Pub. Whistler's mayor had to scold an unruly crowd that a town council meeting was "not a free-for-all."
"If I never hear the word VANOC again, I'd be thrilled," grumbled a local businessman in the back of the council chambers, referring to the Vancouver Organizing Committee.
Olympic spirit is not entirely extinguished. Many in Whistler, co-host to February's Games, believe the global exposure and hundreds of millions of Canadian dollars spent in new venues and transportation will make the region's premier resort even more so.
But naysayers are more vocal, and they have Olympic-sized regrets. Short-term inconveniences — closed roads, parking lots and schools — are proving tough to swallow. Businesses predict disruptions will cut their profits. And there is concern the Olympic sales pitch will fall flat.
The mayor, Ken Melamed, once was a skeptic, the sole vote on the town council in 2002 against the Olympic bid. He's since become a booster, but acknowledges his fears seven years ago have come true.
"I was concerned about what is happening now: Business as usual has become business as unusual," said Melamed, a stone mason who first moved to Whistler in 1976 to be a ski bum. "The normal issues we care about have been moved aside to some degree by the Olympics, which has consumed us."
Attack of the cartoons
Although Whistler swells to 60,000 on peak ski weekends, the 9,500 year-round residents form a close-knit club of outdoor enthusiasts who bike to work in the summer and call in sick with powder fever in the winter.
By one argument, the Games make Whistler even more of a paradise. Legacies include a faster highway from Vancouver, miles of new cross-country ski trails and an Athlete's Village that will become 220 subsidized homes for locals.
New snow-making equipment and a Sliding Centre set up Whistler to host other events later. Whistler Blackcomb's owner also spent nearly $50 million to string the world's longest gondola, the jaw-dropping Peak 2 Peak, between its twin mountains.
Many locals still say they liked Whistler the way it was, before all the hoopla. Whistler's Pique newsmagazine — under the headline "What Happened to Our Olympic Spirit?" — recently published cartoons parodying cute Olympic mascots as "Corpi," outfitted with long arms to reach into taxpayers' pockets, and "Obliva," a disinterested local most anxious about traffic.
Although the Games were pitched as a low-cost boost to Whistler, local property taxes are up more than 21 percent over the past four years amid a blizzard of Games-related spending, including $4.1 million for a Medals Plaza that also cost a grove of beloved cedar trees, and $35,000 for Olympic jackets for municipal staff. Free parking for Whistler Village and day skiers is being converted to pay lots, prompting howls of protest.
"The municipality is looking for any source of revenue they can get," said Bob Barnett, editor of Pique. "There's a bit of a feeling we bent over for the Olympics, which is a culture shift in itself [for Whistler]."
Parents have a gripe as well. Three regional high schools will close for nearly a month before, during and after the Games. School officials had hoped to rent out the buildings and use a portion of the money to provide programs for kids not in school. But VANOC declined to rent the buildings, leaving parents scrambling to keep children entertained during a frantic time.
"Partnership has become a dirty word with the Olympics," said Brian Buchholz, a Whistler fire inspector and parent of a high-school-age daughter. "The feeling is, our partners screwed us on the high-school rental. What kind of a partner is that?"
After the Games
The Games are at an inopportune time for Whistler, which has seen flat-lined tourism from the recession and the end of a hotel and condo building spree that had fattened municipal budgets, because developable Village lots are gone.
The Games were pitched as a way to break through to a new era of growth. "It's not about the 17 days during the Games, it's about the 17 years afterward," said Dave Brownlie, Whistler Blackcomb's chief operating officer, standing on the sun-soaked patio at the mountaintop Roundhouse Lodge.
"As any business, you go through your cycles," he said. "There was a lot of early growth. It's leveled off. The question is, how do we take the resort to the next level? This is that opportunity to jump forward. This puts us on the world stage and gives that opportunity."
The Olympics likely will be great for some Whistler businesses — hotel rates are 20 percent above normal peak, and restaurants expect to be packed. Locals are renting their homes for the duration for $20,000 and up.
But ski-related businesses, such as rental shops, expect to be hit hard because tourists will be going to events, not skiing. Whistler-Blackcomb negotiated an undisclosed payment from VANOC for lost business. Other businesses wonder how they'll get supplies through roads filled with tourist buses carting tourists.
And the future is far less certain than Olympic boosters' sunny statements. The Conference Board of Canada warned in July that any "halo effect" post-Games will fade within two or three years.
"The language before the Olympics is, once you are on the map all your problems are solved, but that doesn't really happen," said Matthew Burbank, co-author of "Olympic Dreams," a book about the impact of Games on North American cities. "In immediate aftereffect [of the Games], there's a small bump in tourism. But it's not like there's a big step up and you get a whole bunch more people coming in. There's a pretty quick decay within several years."
Despite the gloom, Whistler promises to throw one heck of a party for 17 days in February. A majority of the medals handed out will be awarded in Whistler's maligned Medals Plaza.
Government grants will pay for live music and buskers through Whistler's charming Village Stroll. Organizers whisper that bands the caliber of U2 might be playing, although lineups haven't been announced.
Several restaurants have been rented to countries — the Germans, Swiss and Austrians each locked up spaces — and exclusive deals with VANOC will fill big hotels.
"Whistler Village is going to be like New Year's Eve each night, but with tons of entertainment," said Drew Meredith, a former mayor and real-estate agent. "I can't wait. Huge party."
Melamed, the skeptic-turned-booster mayor, said he believes the "blame-everything-on-the-Olympics" crowd in Whistler will be swayed once the party starts. "This is going to be the defining moment in Whistler's history," he said, then paused. "I believe it will be defining in the best sense of the word."
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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