For over four decades, UBC students have had a home on one of Canada’s most famous mountains. But with the Whistler Lodge in disrepair and revenues falling, the future of this historic part of both Whistler and UBC is still in doubt.
The cabin at Alta Lake
Throughout fall of 1965, Varsity Outdoor Club (VOC) members worked frenetically to build the Whistler Lodge in time for the opening of a new ski area.
Whistler, then known as Alta Lake, was a very different place in 1965. The road from Vancouver ended at Squamish, and a dirt road ran the rest of the way. Logging and prospecting, rather than skiing and tourism, were the mainstays of the economy. The VOC’s cabin was one of the first structures to be built on land reserved for club cabins by the operators of the new ski area, who were anxious to make their venture a success.
Roland Burton, who remains involved with the VOC under the tongue-in-cheek title of Useful Person, was one of the volunteers who helped build the lodge. It wasn’t meant to be much more than a place to sleep, and certainly not a hotel, he said. “It was pretty ad-hoc; not a lot was provided. We kept the lodge above freezing most of the time,” Burton said.
“It was designed as a bit of a party place,” he added. “There were some pretty wild times up there.”
The lodge was run by a volunteer — “squatter” might be a more appropriate term – who collected a $5 fee from people staying there. But increasing development and commercialization soon made Whistler less appealing to many VOC members, who tend to prefer backcountry touring to riding chairlifts.
In 1974, uninterested in maintaining a cabin they hardly used, the VOC sought to sell the lodge to the nascent Ski Club (precursor to today’s Ski and Board Club), many of whose members were also VOC members. But instead, the AMS swept in and blocked the deal, citing student clubs’ status as subsidiaries of the AMS with no independent legal status. The lodge came under direct AMS control, despite howls of protest from the VOC and Ski Club.
“The VOC felt pretty upset about this because they had put in a considerable amount of effort and quite a bit of cash,” said Burton.
They wonder how the hell the AMS can manage to continue to pump huge quantities of money into this thing, lose money with both hands and not actually attract anybody who wants to use it.”
The club campaigned long and hard for compensation. Student Court ruled in 1977 that the AMS had to allocate $30,000 to the VOC, which it finally did after almost three years of wrangling, legal threats and a student referendum. The VOC used the money to build more backcountry huts in the Coast Mountains, which have proven more self-sustaining and suited to the interests of VOC members, Burton said.
“Believe it or not, they’re maintained and they’re operated profitably, strictly on volunteer labour. So those who are still around in the club and who care — they wonder how the hell the AMS can manage to continue to pump huge quantities of money into this thing, lose money with both hands and not actually attract anybody who wants to use it.”
Now, Burton said, it seems that the AMS’s only strategy for solving the Whistler Lodge problem is to sell it to a private developer, at which point it will no longer be reserved for UBC students.
This was the fate the lodge narrowly avoided in a failed referendum last year, when the question of whether to sell the lodge failed to meet quorum.
The lodge’s long history is part of its intangible value, but also a key reason why the building has required expensive renovations and repairs over the years. Plumbing, sewage and heating all had to be installed at a cost of $55,000 in 1975, but the lodge was ordered closed for a period of time in 1976 because there was no fire alarm.
AMS councillors didn’t anticipate the lodge to be a money drain. Duncan Thomson, then the secretary of the AMS, said in 1974 that the lodge would be at least as self-sustaining as the Pit Pub.
A report released by the AMS in 2011 provides a complex picture of the lodge’s financial situation over a five-year period. Between 2007 and 2011, one quarter of revenue came from UBC students, and the rest from the general public. Making up much of the non-student revenue were tourists looking for cheap accomodation and members of Whistler’s highly transient workforce, who often stay in hostels while looking for more permanent arrangements.
During this period, the lodge earned $200,000 in operating profit, but cost the AMS $300,000, once $500,000 of repairs conducted in 2006 is factored in.
Committed to keeping the lodge accessible to students, the AMS turned down lucrative offers to rent the entire lodge during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Not only did this prevent an Olympic windfall, but the lodge got an additional kick in the teeth in the aftermath of the Games when the athlete’s village was converted into a massive hostel.
After the Olympics, the athletes’ village at Cheakamus was turned over to Hostelling International (HI). The 188 new beds more than doubled the amount of low-cost accommodation previously available in that area, and put a major dent in the Whistler Lodge’s revenue. From a high of $230,000 in 2009, the lodge’s revenue from the public fell to a paltry $89,000 in 2011.
Neither the Whistler Lodge nor the HI hostel is a clearly better option for visitors to Whistler. Both have similar facilities, like kitchens and wireless Internet. HI is much newer, but the Whistler Lodge has an outdoor hot tub. The lodge is walking distance — less than one kilometre — from a ski run and the Creekside Village. HI’s location is comparatively isolated: reaching the ski area or the village requires a 15-minute bus ride, which costs $2 each way. But for whatever reason — perhaps due to HI’s reputation as an international hostelling organization — non-student revenue for the lodge nose-dived after the Olympics.
In 2012, faced with a $40,000 operating loss for the 2011 fiscal year and the looming prospect of expensive repairs, the AMS decided to hold a referendum to authorize the sale of the lodge. Councillors hoped that money from the sale would be placed in the AMS endowment fund and accrue interest that would help financially stabilize the society.
The prospect of losing the lodge galvanized a vocal group of students led by the Ski and Board Club. The referundum failed to meet quorum, although out of those who did vote, 46 more people were in favour of selling the lodge than keeping it.
A bumpy traverse
Incoming AMS President Caroline Wong, who handled the lodge over the last year as part of the VP Administration portfolio, said she thinks the AMS should stop approaching the lodge as a business that should turn a profit and instead see it as a service for students.
According to the AMS, in the most recent fiscal year the lodge brought in about $171,000 in revenue with an operating deficit of $5,626 — not ideal, but a much less dire figure than the year before. In addition, said Wong, consultations with student groups over the past year have yielded important feedback that was quickly implemented, and prompted a rethink of the AMS’s approach towards the lodge.
Wong said she had been viewing the lodge as a business when she called for it to be sold last year. But that isn’t how most students see it, according to a survey the AMS released on Jan. 5; even students who have never used the lodge would prefer to keep it, as long as it doesn’t require an increase in their student fees.
“Looking at it from a service perspective, and after sitting down and talking to Ski and Board, VOC, and having our surveys and open forums, there is a benefit to having the lodge there,” Wong said.
The results of the survey revealed that 48 per cent of students see the lodge as a service and only 14 per cent as a business. A majority would prefer the AMS to maintain a lodge in Whistler. The survey also did not find much support for the plan of monetizing the lodge and putting it into an endowment fund, assuming a return of $60,000 annually.
“Students built it themselves, and to have that kind of real estate in Whistler is so rare, and to own that — there’s a lot of pride invested in it as well,” Wong said.
What also needs to be invested now is money. The immediate, necessary repairs will amount to $85,000. Repairs to leaks in the roof, washroom ventilation, windows and the building envelope are also pressing, but could be delayed beyond 2014 if necessary; these would cost a further $335,000.
Wong pointed out that the Student Spaces Fund specifically includes renovations and expansion of the Whistler Lodge in its mandate. The concern, however, is that the fund might not be able to cope with unforeseen emergency needs. Wong said she wants a lasting solution.
“I don’t want to do band-aid solutions anymore; we need some kind of long-term plan,” she said.
While the AMS may have misjudged students’ opinions towards the lodge, Ski and Board Club president Braden Parker said he’s happy the AMS sought input on the lodge’s future, especially because it’s something unique to UBC.
“They agree that the Whistler Lodge is a huge attraction for incoming students as well. I know; I’ve talked to a ton of people who’ve said a reason they came here is they think it’s so cool that UBC has this Whistler Lodge,” said Parker.
“Part of living in UBC and around Vancouver is all the things you can do,” Parker continued. “There’s so much to do outdoors. We’re such an active, healthy, clean city.”
As for how the lodge should be run, Parker said he believes there is too much red tape within the AMS and the best option would be to bring in a third-party operator to manage the lodge, while retaining ownership over it.
But regardless of what’s put in place going forward, the bottom line for Parker is that there is no realistic prospect to replace the lodge, and it would be short-sighted to lose it to development.
“I think selling it would be a big shame, because the property value is going to grow and it is an amenity that pulls a lot of people to UBC,” he said.
“In 20 or 30 years, the AMS VP Finance is going to look back and be like, ‘What were we thinking? We had this lodge that we can never get back.’”