WHISTLER, B.C. –The price Vail Resorts has agreed to pay for Whistler Blackcomb is substantially higher than the industry average. It reflects an assumption of growth. In Whistler, there’s a range of opinions about whether that’s good.
Last week in Whistler, Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden pointed out that Whistler was built to be a destination resort. “We’re hovering around 60 percent occupancy levels, and we’re certainly built to handle more,” she said.
Even before the purchase, Whistler Blackcomb had unveiled plans for a $345 million investment plan called Renaissance to upgrade the mountain infrastructure, expand the mountain bike park and build real estate. The centerpiece, though, is a year-round water park to provide a non-skiing alternative — and draw more visitors.
When that announcement was made, Pique newsmagazine pointed to the need for housing to keep up with the expanded commercial activity. And the plan, the newspaper pointed out, exceeded the community’s growth cap.
Of particular concern is whether the workforce housing will be sufficient. Unlike so many resorts, there is very little down-valley commuting. About 80 percent of people who work in Whistler live in Whistler.
Will Vail meet its end of the deal? From Colorado come reports that the company has sometimes fallen short in delivering workforce housing to its I-70 resorts.
“Considering the real challenges we have had with getting employees here, finding them a place to live, keeping them here on a living wage, traffic woes and even just the perception that we are out-of-control busy, some hard questions need to be asked about our future,” editor Clare Ogilvie wrote in Pique.
Vail Resorts, she noted, has recently committed $30 million to workforce housing across its properties in Colorado, California and Utah. She wondered, “could we see the same commitment here?”
Roger McCarthy knows Vail Resorts inside and out. He ran Breckenridge Ski Resort for Vail early in the last decade and helped advise the Russians on creating Sochi. He has also been on the municipal council in Whistler.
“I would tell you that Vail Resorts is not afraid to reinvest,” he told Pique. “They’re not afraid to put the money into the operation, and that’s different from some other big conglomerates I’ve seen where they’re trying to suck it dry and the money keeps going down the road and out of the valley.”
A key component to this deal is Whistler’s opportunity to become a destination-of-choice for the growing number of Chinese skiers. Bob Falle, ski resort management expert and chair of Selkirk College’s School of Hospitality and Tourism, told Pique that the domestic markets in the United States and Canada have plateaued. Ski areas must look off-shore if they seek to grow their volume. He sees synergy between Whistler, already the continent’s busiest resort, and the resources of Vail Resorts.
“I think this is an opportunity that is going to put Whistler Blackcomb, but by extension Western Canada, into new markets,” he said. “The growth of the industry is dependent on generating and attracting new skiers into Western Canada.”
Not everybody in Whistler is happy. A columnist for Pique had nothing nice to say about Vail, the town, the interstate that goes through it, or the intermediate-heavy terrain of Vail Mountain. But more, he rejects the idea of growth. “There are tangible limits to growth based on the carrying capacity of this valley,” said G.D. Maxwell.
For students of history, Whistler should perhaps best be understood as a creation of Colorado ski areas. Yes, there were skiers there before, but key figures from Vail had a seminal influence in the design of Whistler base area in the 1970s and 1980s. In a sense, they took the successes — and failures — of Vail and tried to do it better at Whistler.
Then, there’s Blackcomb, which was created by the Aspen Skiing Co.
And finally, there’s the current ownership of the ski area, KSL Capital Partners, which is made up of former Vail executives, and owns 24 percent of Whistler Blackcomb.