Paul Andrews

Whistler’s Bankruptcy: Meaningless or an omen?

In Mountain Biking on January 22, 2010 at 3:12 am

At this point there’s not a lot that can be definitively said about the mess at Whistler, other than there’s much more going on behind the scenes than we’re being told. That and the reporting on this so far has been opaque.

Typically any high-profile bankruptcy “announcement” is simply high-stakes brinkmanship aimed at loosening up some funds or quelling an investor revolt. Till a good business journalist gets in and wrestles with the gritty details, our speculation is that Whistler is trying to hold a gun to the head of the Olympics Committee, which at last word simply wasn’t honoring blithely stated commitments eons ago when Whistler was initially “awarded” the Winter Games for 2010.

We reported last summer from Ground Zero at Crankworx that locals were increasingly unhappy with the Olympics (later corroborated by The Seattle Times). Games preparations had torn apart the place, rents had spiked beyond profitability and dozens of businesses in the Whistler-Blackcomb malls were, to use an apropos cliche, skating on thin ice.

Crankworx 2009: Great festival, but the locals grumbled

We have no doubt the Games will proceed as planned. That doesn’t mean there won’t be strife and turmoil, and perhaps a few moments of nastiness resulting from “silent protests.” But there’s far too much money and commercialism at stake to disrupt the Olympics in any meaningful manner.

Instead the real issue here is the future of the resort. Whistler/Blackcomb built, built and built some more during the bank bubble years. It’s plainly overextended. Resorts lose their shiny-bauble appeal after a few years as the ski ‘n golf crowd moves to the Next Cool Place. Whistler is expensive, it’s overbuilt, and — not insignificantly for those of us who remember its distant hippie past as a rustic backwater — it’s sold its soul. Any local will tell you so.

For the mountain biking community, this is grave news. We were startled at the dropoff in slope attendance last summer. Tourism you can expect to be down, but Whistler is the gold standard of mountain bike parks, drawing from all over the world. Yet it was abundantly clear to us after multiple trips up that attendance was suffering, and what was left was largely “day-ers” — folks from Vancouver and Squamish who came up, rode the lifts, and drove back home. Not a sustainable business model for a world class resort.

Our suspicion is that things won’t get better any time soon, for three reasons. First, it’s hard to keep upping the ante year after year with new trails, features and lures. You can only do the same runs so many times, even if you get to ride a gondola back up. Second, the economy. By the time you total in lift tickets, transportation costs, housing, bike and/or gear rentals, food and drink, Whistler’s expensive, dude.

Third, perhaps most importantly, mini-Whistlers are popping up all over. Especially in the Pacific Northwest, including the rest of B.C., you’re seeing trail work explode. Why drive 4 hours to Whistler when you can pop over east of Lake Washington for some freeride action at Duthie Hill or Summit Ridge or Exit 38 or wherever. Or head up to Bellingham, over to Port Angeles or across the mountains to Leavenworth. Plus you’ve got Stevens Pass joining the Mountain Bike Park ranks later this year.

There’s no doubt that the pressure is on at Whistler. Its best days may be behind it. Greed — unbridled and conscience-less greed — has led the onetime innocent astray. Whistler will go on, we trust, and hey, you’ll find us up there this summer with everyone else at Crankworx. But the bloom is off the rose, and the current bankruptcy rattlings merely underline the obvious decay behind the glitzy veneer.

  1. I’m having trouble following you here. First off, Whistler has always been owned, developed, and operated by a corporate developer. Quaint and pedestrian-friendly as it is, did it ever have more soul than Disneyworld? Who is this “onetime innocent” that was led astray? Intrawest? Second, if the golf crowd moves on, won’t that bring prices back down and give “soul” a chance to settle in? Being overbuilt should help prices come down all the faster.

    • Thanks Maarten, You’re just not old enough. I go back to the Whistler of the ’60s and ’70s when they actually turned down a chance to host the Winter Olympics. Till the mid-’90s Whistler had a real backwoods rebel element to it, where a lot of urban refugees (post-hippies) knew what would happen if monied interests gained control. (I still have trail maps that designate “proposed Mountain Bike park.”) They did. And it did.

  2. I agree with Maarten and Paul on certain points. I think Intrawest (and Whistler as a part of it) are simply more victims of the speculation era. Everybody was a hero who could conjure up new financial wizardry and those same people thought growth was endless and banked on it.

    I don’t think being overbuilt will bring prices down, rather it keeps them up due to the required upkeep or quality will suffer as funds diminish. This could become the ‘GM of resorts’.

  3. Perhaps riders will actually go out in the woods again…its free.

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