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For Whistler businesses, Olympic gold was elusive

Now echoing with construction noise, the home boasts a sweeping view of the Tantalus Range and a stone-clad entryway reminiscent of castle walls.

When it's finished, the house will have cost somewhere between $5-million and $10-million, in line with sums commanded by homes in this subdivision, named Kadenwood and served by a private gondola that runs from the slope-side enclave to Whistler's Creekside base.

There are still lots for sale here, starting at more than $1-million, and it's Keith McIvor's job to sell them - a task he says has been made easier by the afterglow of last year's Olympic and Paralympic Games.

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"There's no question the Olympics have increased awareness globally of Whistler," he said this week.

Mr. McIvor, vice-president of sales for Ecoasis Properties Ltd., believes heightened post-Games awareness may have played a role in the recent sale of five lots. But he can't say for certain. And that's a common theme in Whistler, where there's a sense that the Games were great for community spirit but not as good for business.

In the village, Olympic mascots are on sale at cut-rate prices and hotels are peddling discount packages. Post-Olympic blues are tinged by other factors, including a Canada-U.S. exchange rate that has made Whistler less affordable for American visitors.

The downside was evident even before TV cameras beamed Whistler to the world. Olympic aversion - the tendency of visitors to avoid host communities out of worries about crowds, cost and security hassles - has been documented in several cities. And it played out in Whistler, despite efforts to counter it with marketing campaigns that emphasized the resort would be open during the Games.

In a year-end report, ski resort operator Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. - which went public last year - said its 2010 business was hurt, as expected, by "visitor aversion," and that $32.3-million of venue fees paid by the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee to the resort was not enough to make up the difference, estimated at $6.2-million.

Hotel visits tracked by the Resort Municipality of Whistler are expected to be down by about 3 per cent from last year's Olympic level - better than expected, given global economic conditions, according to Tourism Whistler.

Economic benefits, if they come, are expected to take time to materialize. In Park City, Utah, winter visits increased 6.2 per cent over the five years after it hosted some events of the 2002 Olympics. Whistler Blackcomb, which already had a high profile, isn't expecting the same kind of boost enjoyed by Park City, which was relatively obscure before the Games. But the Canadian resort hopes to translate its increased profile into more visitors and profits.

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As Whistler Blackcomb angles for global traffic, some local businesses are struggling to get back on their feet.

Canadian Snowmobile Adventures Ltd., which runs snowmobile, dog sled and snowshoe expeditions in the Callaghan Valley, was hamstrung by Olympic-related road closures, and is only now starting to recover, says co-owner Allan Crawford.

Recent revelations of a grisly cull by another, unrelated sled dog operation have resulted in a public-relations nightmare for Canadian Snowmobile and, some fear, for Whistler as a whole. The furor over the sled dogs has resulted in a provincial inquiry and weighed on Tourism Whistler and local politicians, who have been called on to comment about the cull.

As the sled dog controversy continues, local businesses are adjusting to the post-Olympic reality.

Summit Ski Ltd. is back to a full complement of about 20 seasonal staff. Last year, it hired four, says owner Ian Van Gruen. The company also slashed purchasing, buying about half the volume of "hard goods" such as skis, snowboards and helmets that it would for a non-Olympic year.

Summit planned to further protect itself by subletting part of its space for use as a hospitality suite. When a global recession kicked in, those plans fell apart. The company toughed it out, finding a silver lining in stronger-than-expected sales of VANOC-licensed merchandise.

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"The Olympics were fantastic - and I wouldn't change it for anything," said Mr. Gruen. "Profitability-wise, we knew that going in and we were ready for it. You just do what you can to mitigate any losses and carry on."

Restaurateurs encountered feast and famine. Vancouver-based Points West Hospitality Group signed a short-term lease at Creekside for a temporary tapas bar. A last-minute change to security plans resulted in a fence running closer than expected to the restaurant.

"It totally boxed us in and made it almost impossible for people to get to us," said Points West president Rob Ward. "We were cut off from the lifts that we thought we were going to get most of our clientele from."

Points West lost money on the venture, although Mr. Ward declines to say how much. The company has another Whistler restaurant, Players Chop House, that did a booming business during the Games.

On the real-estate front, Whistler residential property values fell by 2 per cent in 2011, countering an upward trend in most Lower Mainland municipalities.

A 2010 report co-authored by University of British Columbia professor Tsur Somerville found no evidence that house prices rose faster in a host city before, during or after the Games than in non-Olympic cities in the same country. The study also found no evidence of a negative effect - a post-Olympic bust - in housing markets. The biggest impact was a construction employment boom in the runup to the Games.

"There was a lot of belief that the Olympics would create a real boost in interest, and consequently in the value of real estate in Whistler," said Patrick Kelly of Whistler Real Estate. "That didn't happen."

He sees infrastructure - such as the rebuilt Sea to Sky Highway, athletes' housing that became permanent housing for Whistler residents, and expanded cross-country ski facilities - as the most lasting benefits of the Games.

"We're only beginning to think, how do we lever these to provide a better experience for guests and visitors and residents," Mr. Kelly said.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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