By Bob Barnett
In the hallway leading to the Planning Department, in the basement of Whistler’s municipal hall, there’s a sign that says, appropriately enough, "Planning Department." The word "Planning" and the first five letters of "Department" are evenly spaced and of uniform size; the last five letters are squeezed together and run off the bottom of the sign — evidence that whoever made the sign didn’t think things through before starting work on it.
The sign is meant as a joke, Whistler being one of the most planned towns in North America — although critics of some planning decisions might see more irony than humour in it.
The man behind the sign who has guided most of the planning decisions made in Whistler over the last 20 years, is Mike Vance. Last week Vance started his new job as director of planning for Mammoth Lakes, the California resort town where Intrawest is preparing a major redevelopment. But decisions made and directions taken during Vance’s time in Whistler will be seen for as long as Whistler exists.
"We should all step back and be proud of what we’ve done here," Vance says when asked to reflect on how Whistler has developed.
"The village is great — it’s not perfect — but all in all, it’s great. We’re still missing a recreation/culture facility and a permanent home for the library and museum... but if you look around at our competitors, there’s nothing like us. I don’t know of any resort that integrates the community and the resort the way Whistler has."
The integration of the resort and the community of Whistler is the latest phase in Whistler’s development. Vance’s career here has paralleled those phases. Every time there was a corner to be turned, Vance was involved: initially as the only member of the Planning Department; later he went to work for the municipality’s Whistler Village Land Company; he was involved in the development of the Benchlands; he then moved back to the municipality to set up the Parks Department; and finally, from 1987 until March 6 of this year, he was the municipality’s director of planning. Not bad for a guy who started out in Whistler thinking he’d be a bartender.
"Laurie (Vance’s wife) came to Whistler to manage the Highland Lodge. I had just gotten out of university and my brother-in-law and I built the bar at the lodge.
"I thought I should be the bartender, since I built it, so I got a book on mixing drinks."
It was while he was studying that book, on vacation in Hawaii in 1978, that the municipality advertised for a planner. Vance sent his application in from Hawaii and started with the fledgling Resort Municipality of Whistler in August, 1978, "...a time when the village plans were being finalized, and just before the province put Blackcomb Mountain out to a proposal call."
That fall the municipality put the Whistler Village Land Company together and made the first proposal call for parcels in the original village.
"It was immediate acceleration to 100 mph; a learning curve of 90 degrees," as investors, developers and various levels of government grappled with the concept of a pedestrian village built on a garbage dump in some town north of Vancouver.
He moved over to the Whistler Village Land Company, a subsidiary of the municipality, in 1982, after the nucleus of the village had been built around Village Square and the spine leading up to Mountain Square had taken shape. But in 1983, as the recession hit and Whistler was still very much a regional resort, the land company became insolvent and was taken over by the province.
Vance went to work as a consultant. Working with the Design Workshop group, which is based in Aspen, he was hired by Blackcomb, whose head office at that time was also in Aspen, since the Aspen Skiing Company owned Blackcomb. Vance did much of the planning work for the development of the Benchlands, but returned to the municipality in 1985, on a contract basis, before most of the Benchlands development began. His work with the municipality was primarily in the field of economic planning before he was hired to get the Parks Department started. In 1987 he was named Director of Planning.
The 1980s were unquestionably a decade of physical development, as the municipality, the mountains and the resort association worked to build the "resort product" and raise Whistler’s profile, first regionally, then nationally, then in select international targets: initially Japan and California. In September of 1989 the cover of SKI magazine heralded its annual resort ratings with the words, "No. 1: Vail, No. 2 (You’ll never guess.)" Whistler had arrived — as a ski resort.
That year, 1989, was also the last Official Community Plan that really focused on the resort, Vance points out. That OCP emphasized the need for summer facilities to complete the resort. Those facilities that were chosen from a proposal call included the Whistler Racquet and Golf Resort, the Nicklaus North Golf Course and the Chateau Whistler Golf Course.
"In the mid-to-early ’90s the focus swung to the community," Vance says, pointing to the decision to build a high school in Whistler, efforts made toward affordable housing and a survey of second homeowners, which showed more than one-quarter of them planned to make Whistler their home during retirement. In 1994 Whistler council decided the only reason to raise the cap on development was for employee housing.
"The make-up of the community changes significantly when a large portion of the people move here for the lifestyle," Vance says.
"That’s not to say that the people who are already here aren’t here for the lifestyle, too, but protecting what we have and what brought us here takes on greater emphasis."
That became all the more apparent with the rapid development of Village North, something that by the time it was happening was largely out of the municipality’s hands.
With the emphasis on the community, the ’90s have marked a change for the Planning Department, from primarily physical planning to social planning and sustainability. The municipal monitoring program, Vance feels, will be a critical tool for the Planning Department: preparing us for change, creating awareness of change and getting a better handle on where we’re going.
The annual town hall meeting and the monitoring program, "as they are and what they will become," are some of Vance’s proudest accomplishments.
"It’s a real opportunity for the community to be involved, to really see what’s happening and to have a say.
"If we can secure a liberal arts university or a community college here it would really round out the community. Education has always been a priority," Vance says.
"There are some really exciting opportunities for Whistler. The visioning exercise — no one else is doing that. We’re not worrying about the rules, we’re doing what we need to do."
So why is he moving to California at this point in Whistler’s history?
"I looked at what the town’s committed to doing, and at the same time the community services that are there. The more we talked with family and friends, the more it made sense.
"It’s an opportunity to build a new community in an old community. It seemed if we didn’t take the opportunity we’d be sorry."
While he’s not turning his back on Whistler forever, Vance is excited by what is taking place in Mammoth.
"It’s an opportunity to be involved in another village development, but a different type. The timing’s right from a Whistler perspective, I know the people involved... and the weather’s good."