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Vail vs. Whistler: Struggle For Community


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Whistler was meant to be self-contained. The nearest sizable town is Squamish, 38 winding miles south. Otherwise the Fraser Valley is little developed. Those who work in Whistler must, of necessity, live there because there really isn’t anywhere else. Eighty percent of the resort’s employees reside in town, a far higher number than at any other major ski resort in North America and roughly double Vail’s 38 percent. The upshot is a resort that has grown into a town that actually functions like one.

Executives at Intrawest say that keeping employees happy via everything from ski-in/ski-out housing to go-go dancing at the Showcase bar is corporate strategy. “Our belief is that if we’ve got happy staff, then we’re going to have happy customers, and then we’re going to be profitable,” Intrawest’s Smythe says. “To some degree staff comes first, guests come second.” Case in point: Last winter the resort provided space for a rave.

Vail-as a town and a company-didn’t worry much about employee housing; there was always that long, fast-developing valley to the west, with easy interstate access. People could leave-and they did, hollowing out Vail Village.

“Vail’s biggest change probably occurred when we pulled the post office out of the village,” Kelton says, “and the Deli and Donovan’s Copper Bar-places people interacted. That was compounded by being victim to our own success, with property values escalating to where employees started moving. It’s tough to have a Garton’s Saloon or a Casino, with a year-round basis of community support, because people generally drink and party in their own sandboxes.” All of these local meeting spots left Vail Village during the Eighties.

Today Vail houses slightly more than a third of the resort’s workers inside town limits, and both town and company officials acknowledge that getting more people living in town is a top priority.

“It’s probably our biggest challenge,” says Andy Daly, president of Vail Resorts. “Vail’s 98 percent developed; there’s not much land.”

The town of Vail’s official goal is to house 62 percent of its employees, which will require the construction of 1,600 new beds. But a housing development plan released in June 1998 was torpedoed by residents who don’t want housing built on open space-even though the plan called for using only seven acres out of 1,200 that the town owns. The window of opportunity to create a certain kind of community in Vail, one of ski bums and their ilk, seems to have closed.

“We didn’t do a very good job over the years of dealing with affordable housing, and as land values forced people downvalley, it began to erode the sense of community,” Vail Town Manager Bob McLaurin says. “In some respects, it eroded the sense of community within the corporate limits of Vail. In reality, the community is from the bottom of Vail Pass to Edwards 18 miles. If you live here you end up going up and down the road a lot.”

Like Whistler, Vail itself won’t grow-the town is built out, surrounded by federal lands. And despite the addition of the 645-acre Blue Sky Basin last winter, Vail Resorts intends to retain its self-imposed skier cap: no more than 19,900 skiers at one time on Vail Mountain.

With most of the people who make Vail function no longer living in the town, there is a different cachet to the place. Seventy-two percent of the private properties are second homes, owned by part-time residents-many of whom are among the world’s rich and famous. For if Vail no longer is a hotbed of ski bums, it has become something else: a name with distinction, on par with Scarsdale and Beverly Hills and St. Moritz.

For the past few years, Vail Resorts’ business strategy has included selling high-end single-family lots, particularly at nearby Beaver Creek, where 102 lots in Bachelor Gulch were sold in recent years for approximately $1 million apiece. (A second phase of development there will add 474 shorter-term rental units.) At Whistler the focus has been almost soolely on creating “hot beds,” properties that are always on the rental market and often occupied. Both strategies add to the companies’ bottom lines, and to the distinctive flavor of their respective resorts.

But nobody is sitting still. “We go to Whistler, and they come down here, and we don’t necessarily tell one another we’re coming,” says Vail’s Daly. Vail is about to embark on a capital-improvements campaign to reinvent its village, borrowing some of its ideas from Whistler. The Lionshead gondola building will be replaced by a top-flight hotel and several hundred employee-housing units. The mall area will be revamped (say goodbye to the Lionshead clock tower), the Lionshead parking garage will become a backdrop for a line of retail shops, and a new ice rink and learning center will be built near the library.

Lionshead and Vail Village will be more tightly integrated, vehicles more effectively shut out. Yet the downvalley communities will continue to grow; current zoning allows for 70 percent more development. Vail will remain the keystone of a resort megalopolis that fills a 30-mile-long valley.

Whistler faces a challenge that was declined three decades ago by Colorado: The Olympics. Whistler is pulling together the Canadian Olympic bid for the 2010 Winter Games. Despite all the planning and control, if the Games come to the Fraser Valley, they will bring unprecedented challenges. Two-lane Highway 99 from Vancouver already is being strained; there are suggestions of building a new road in from the east-and a new road, as the Eagle Valley demonstrates, can trigger exactly the sort of sprawl and loss of community that Whistler has tried to avoid.

Looking back at the only Olympic bid ever to be won and then lost, Vail’s Seibert sees missed opportunity. “If we had had the Olympics it would have brought all of these growth problems into focus,” he says. “We could have had a plan, coped with it and been ahead of the game. We’ve had growth anyway, but without the plan.”