Catching the second wave
By Lorraine Passchier
Being number one is just the beginning. Remember, IBM and General Electric used to be number one. The danger signs of complacency to watch out for are difficult access, being too expensive, cheaper competition elsewhere and the emergence of a two-class society."
– David Leighton addressing the 1993 Whistler Symposium
Anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Education has become a flexible tool of commerce that can be taken into conference rooms or onto mountain tops. As the ’90s push toward the year 2000, education is expected to become a major player in Whistler's development, a resource that is both clean and a catalyst for cultural activity in a shifting economy.
Future education facilities planned for Whistler include a world-class hospitality training centre, similar to the one now found in Lausanne, Switzerland, and an English as a Second Language centre which would target the global market. An international private school is already slated and the first steps have been taken to establish Whistler and the corridor as the place where hi-tech entrepreneurs live and seek training.
Leading the way is the Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts, which after five years of operation has established a reputation for quality and excellence in a highly competitive market. As always, high-end instructor training programs and ski lessons continue to attract visitors to Blackcomb and Whistler, while the Chamber of Commerce's Training Trust Fund is aimed at providing educational support for people working in Whistler.
So how far can this wave of economic activity go as Whistler continues to secure its place as a number one ski resort? Robert fine of the Sea to Sky Economic Development Commission calls it a launching of sorts, as Whistler begins to prepare for the day when construction jobs are no longer abundant.
"The biggest question I would pose is, 'is it a launch of an airplane or is it a launch of a space shuttle?'" Fine says.
He believes the education industry is a smaller launch, one part of a second wave of economic activity in Whistler that will be balanced by value-added wood products, light manufacturing and hi-tech industry. Fine points out diversification is insurance against the fate of IBM and other high achievers who made the mistake of believing they could sit still while their competitors continued to evolve with changing times and changing demands.
When Capilano College President Douglas Jardine addressed a recent Chamber of Commerce luncheon, he too referred to IBM's fate and the danger of complacency in any business venture. The solution, he says is to push ahead by launching a second curve before the first curve has reached its peak. Mayor Ted Nebbeling says the resort is still climbing toward the pinnacle of the first curve, while the framework for the second curve is being created.
"If you reach the pinnacle, unless you add new elements to it, the line will go down. I don't like to think that we would miss the boat by not tapping into the opportunities that are there," he says.
Nebbeling sees culture as the main component of the education base and says it has the potential to become a significant factor in the Whistler economy. The crucial first steps for future development have been set down by the Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts, but Nebbeling says the community remains in its infancy and the next stage will take commitment and time.
"You can compare it (education and culture) to the development of Whistler as a ski resort. We were a small, regional area for a long time. We had the base and the capacity to develop into something really big, but before we got to the point where we were going for the international status we had to develop as a small, regional resort, which led us to the day when we could do bigger and better and become an international ski resort.
"With cultural activities it is the same. We are not yet a significant force, however what we have done has been recognized as high quality and it puts us on the map. We have not yet developed what will ultimately be like an Aspen, where creative culture is a main component of their existence. We are not there. We are at the same level where Whistler was as a resort in the early ’70s."
Whistler Centre's President Anne Popma says it takes five years of producing high-quality programs to establish a good track record in the education industry, but at least that is one hurdle out of the way. The centre has raised $3 million for its activities through the years and it's poised to expand. By the end of the decade, Popma is hopeful a performing arts facility will be established in Whistler.
"I can see summer stock theatre, an expanded music program, dance and choral music. I can see us becoming a very rich summer cultural destination with students and teachers working together.
"On the business side, I can see us becoming a major provincial force and a new focal point for the practice of sustainability in British Columbia, as Whistler becomes the place where people look when they want new ideas on how to manage a changing world."
Popma stresses education is not an overnight industry, but a venture that requires careful nurturing. The centre's current success has been achieved by securing a niche in the tight education market, by delivering programs that can't be found elsewhere, such as the Young Artists Experience symposiums, which bring gifted protégés from across the country together in a non-competitive environment in Whistler.
"We wanted to establish a unique niche for the Whistler Centre as an organization that offers programs on the leading edge of change. We're forerunning and I've heard that we're giving Banff a run for their money in terms of being an educational institution in Western Canada. We focus a lot on issues of sustainability because that's the major change we are going through globally," she says.
One aim of the centre is to develop education as a tourism generator. The majority of people accessing the programs stay in Whistler for about three nights, which translates into hotel bookings, restaurant meals and retail purchases. Popma describes the program users as decision makers in business, government and communities from throughout the Pacific Northwest and Canada.
The cultural dimension of the centre is being fashioned after the Aspen Summer Festival model, which Popma says is built on a teaching model, rather than an entertainment model.
"The Young Artists program is first and foremost an educational program of a very high quality, advancing the careers of young artists. Secondarily, it is a tourist generator and it will continue to grow."
Meanwhile, Whistler's most obvious draw remains its stunning physical setting and its close proximity to a large cosmopolitan city at a time when technology is allowing more people to work from home. Fine says it's attracting people from the hi-tech sector who could eventually benefit the education industry.
"There are already people in the corridor established in the hi-technology field and we know there are people looking at coming to Sea to Sky Country from the Lower Mainland and other parts of Canada and the United States who are saying they've been skiing in Whistler and windsurfing in Squamish and they love the corridor," he says.
A technology forum is scheduled for June and Fine says the commission hopes to foster growth by creating a directory to market the hi-tech services available in the corridor to the Lower Mainland and other parts of Canada, while identifying any specific training needs this specialized group may have.
And while there are no firm plans to establish an ESL centre in Whistler, Fine says the likelihood is definitely there since three groups have wanted to develop an English language centre in the past. Nebbeling says the addition of a private school to the community is desirable and if integrated with an intensive outdoor recreation program will provide enormous benefits to the students.
"It's in line with the way of thinking of how we are going to use the environment as a plus rather than extract resources from it. Education is one way of extracting a lot of value from the environment because it becomes knowledge rather than gutting a tree or digging a hole," Nebbeling says.
While the goal of these multi-faceted ventures is to attract visitors to Whistler, the purpose of the Whistler Training Trust Fund is to help people working in Whistler by providing training which will advance their careers and keep them in the community. Funded by the federal government and local business, Thelma Johnstone says the program will have more flexibility in the days to come. A hospitality centre similar to the one found in Lausanne could be five to 10 years down the road and would likely involve amalgamation with the University of Victoria or another post-secondary institution.
"There is no question there are people here that see that kind of vision," Johnstone says. "We see the fund as just being the beginning of the kind of training that can eventually emerge at Whistler. It's just a starting point aimed at assisting employees and employers."
And as Jardine pointed out, a good future vision is not about fact but possibilities.