Last Friday (March 22) was a smashing day on the hill. There were still plenty of good lines to be had off Flute. Adagio Trees still had untracked lines for those who could make a snap decision and change direction quickly. My friend Colin and I froze on the Symphony Chair under the blinding blue sky, the temperature being a less than balmy -13 C for most of the morning.
After we had exhausted the question of whether to stay in Symphony or move on (we stayed) and solved the Cypriot banking crisis (the Russians will take a haircut), the conversation turned to whether Whistler should continue to entertain the idea of rezoning the Zen lands to allow an institution of higher learning, and on what terms.
Colin suggested the land should only be rezoned if the proponent could demonstrate that the school would be sustainable. After I had finished rolling my eyes and shushing my inner voice, which protested that sustainability had gone out with the last local election, I politely asked Colin to explain.
In fact, Colinís thesis was the very essence of sustainability. The school must demonstrate the ability to stay in business as an institution of higher learning even if enrollment does not generate the revenue necessary to pay the operating costs.
For years we told the world and ourselves that Whistler was special, that we were entitled to do things the Whistler way (being Whistlerís term for, amongst other things, extracting our pound of flesh). Usually the strategy worked. The communityís ability to deliver resident restricted housing is a case in point. Other times we found ourselves on the short end of the stick. The deal that allowed Montebello to get built and sold while the Tennis Club still operates in an inflatable tent illustrates what can go wrong, as does the deal that allowed the Rainbow neighborhood to get built and sold before the commercial center and gas station were delivered.
We canít blame these lapses on the developers. Their job is to invest as little as reasonably possible to gain the maximum return. The Hallís job is to make sure that the deal is good for the community. If one takes the time to look around town at deals that have been put together between a proponent and the RMOW over the last 40 years, it would be fair to observe that every deal that did not meet community expectations had one thing in common. The staff, mayor and council of the day did not negotiate well.
Turning back to the university proposal, the current mayor and council must negotiate very well. What should they demand to ensure the school does not become another condominium development, hotel, casino or, worse yet, a shuttered derelict campus at the entrance to town where a thriving campus was promised? What mayor and council must demand is that the school be sufficiently well endowed that it can continue to meet its financial obligations and function as a school, even if the promised enrollment does not materialize.
How much should the Hall be looking for? Yale University is extremely well endowed at roughly $1.6 million per student. On the other end of the scale, Case Western Reserve has an endowment of only $175,000 per student. The average endowment of the top 100 private universities in the United States is roughly $800,000 per student.
The way I see it, if we wish to continue to build our reputation as a premium resort, we must negotiate for a premium institution of higher education. That means an institution so well endowed that if it takes 20 or 30 years to build enrollment the institution can afford to be a research school rather than a teaching school. That in turn means money in the bank to pay the bills regardless of enrollment.