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RMOW’s Whistler Sessions are meant to ‘provoke’ you

Four different planning scenarios take ‘really sober look’ at what Whistler could look like in 2050  
N-Whistler Sessions 29.23 GETTY IMAGES
The RMOW’s Whistler Sessions examine what the resort could look like in 2050 if historical trends continue.

When Reos Partners—the international social enterprise that helps guide governments, corporations and social organizations out of their most pressing, complex challenges—was tapped by the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) last year to provide a clear-eyed view into the community’s long-term future, the firm left with two key takeaways that surprised them. 

First, how ready and willing Whistlerites were to roll up their sleeves and get to work, as the roomful of locals invited to contribute to the RMOW’s “transformative” scenario planning exercise, dubbed the Whistler Sessions, were. 

The second? 

“They said they’ve never seen a group of people with such positivity bias, which speaks to the perseverance and the entrepreneurship of Whistler, but also a potential weakness or something we need to watch out for,” said municipal CAO Ginny Cullen. “Because your greatest strength can become a weakness.” 

It’s this kind of rosy-eyed complacency that the Whistler Sessions are meant to combat. Emerging out of the Whistler Recovery Working Group formed during the pandemic and made up of a diverse roster of local leaders, First Nations, artists and entrepreneurs from across the resort, the Whistler Sessions read the tea leaves to forecast what the community could look like in the year 2050. 

Reos ran the exercises three times between last fall and March of this year, and eventually landed on four different possible scenarios. On-hand to present an overview of the scenarios to elected officials at Whistler’s June 21 Committee of the Whole meeting, Cullen explained the exercise is meant to spark a different kind of perspective on Whistler’s future—warts and all. 

“It’s a way of thinking differently about the future and taking a really sober look at what could happen. And because of this, I think one of the insights is that what we’ve created is a piece of art,” she said. “It’s not a plan. It’s not science. And with art, it’s a provocation.”

Throughout the process, Cullen noted the municipality heard from people who  “didn’t like” or had “emotional reactions” to the various planning scenarios, proof in the RMOW’s mind that the Sessions had their intended effect. 

“No art … is there to make you feel good,” she added. “This is to provoke discussion to get you thinking differently and to interrupt what perhaps was an ingrained thinking pattern about Whistler’s future prior to COVID and prior to this work.” 

Scenario 1: Sky’s the Limit 

The first scenario doesn’t take that much imagination to picture. Called “Sky’s the Limit,” it contemplates a future in which market pressures to densify and grow lead to “a more built-up, populous, diverse town,” Cullen said, and imagines how the historical policy levers used to limit growth—the resort’s longstanding cap on bed units immediately springs to mind—might fail or be discarded by future leaders. 

This scenario also “tells a cautionary tale about good intentions with respect to Truth and Reconciliation, falling short of delivering on the outcomes of learning, healing and the understanding needed to heal past and present traumas,” noted Cullen. “The Truth and Reconciliation aspects that were pulled through each of the stories, they do not represent an ideal condition. They represent a best attempt at what could happen in the future. And I think there was a general consensus among the group that we would want to do better than what’s outlined in these scenarios.” 

Scenario 2: Weather the Storm 

The second scenario takes a more restrained approach to Whistler’s growth, and emphasizes innovation as a key piece to solving some of the resort’s biggest challenges. 

“It is a story about innovation, restraint and perseverance,” described Cullen. “It paints a picture of how creating a Whistler that is inclusive, sustainable and prosperous could be a difficult journey” due in part to the accelerating effects of climate change, resistance to new policies, and scarcity of capital.  

With the right policies and guidance from our local Indigenous leaders in place, however, this scenario suggests Whistler could not only develop into a climate-resilient resort, but “could be world-leading in that aspect,” Cullen said. “And we have First Nations leadership growing within our community in terms of energy resource management and perhaps international sporting events.” 

Scenario 3: The Growing Divide 

If there’s a scenario that feels more like peering 30 minutes into Whistler’s future than 30 years, it might be Scenario 3: The Growing Divide.
This scenario envisions a future in which unaffordability worsens, the tourism economy is geared primarily towards the rich, and local decision-making becomes “dominated” by corporate influence. 

“It asks us to contemplate how systemic gentrification of Whistler’s economy and demographics might influence its culture, inclusivity and sense of belonging,” Cullen said. “This story asks us to reflect on the potential benefits of increased wealth, while also represents voices in the community who feel the effects of current economic trends and ask: do I have a place in Whistler’s future?” 

Scenario 4: From the Ashes 

The fourth and final scenario looks further outside the Whistler bubble to gauge how external global forces could shape the resort’s future, for better or worse. 

“The story reflects an awareness that globally, Whistler’s community and economy are connected to a larger world in which stability is not guaranteed, for example, due to climate change, global conflict or economic crisis,” explained Cullen. “It invites thinking and discussion about how Whistler might need or choose to transform economically and socially in response to this kind of disruption.”

One of the potential transformations this scenario looks at is sport no longer being an “organizing factor” in Whistler. 

“It’s the connection to land and place that’s the common value between the people who remain,” added Cullen. 

When this scenario was first taking shape in late 2021, Cullen said it “seemed silly” to put so much attention on outside international forces. That is until Feb. 24, when Russia began its wide-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

“All of a sudden it was like all the geopolitical pieces that we had taken for granted are not as stable as we thought,” she said. “And so that idea that the external forces could really impact us locally, we’d like to bring that thinking in more.” 

As with all the scenarios, Cullen was quick to point out there is no ideal outcome here. Unlike some of Reos’ past work in which a preferred scenario bubbles up to the surface, the growing uncertainty facing both Whistler and the wider world means “there is no one scenario that is the answer in terms of what we would be driving forward on,” she said. “They each have trade-offs and compromises. Some people winning, per se, and some people losing.” 

Trying to strike a balance 

Concurrent with the scenario planning, the RMOW has been at work on its so-called Balance Model, a long-term strategic planning initiative that was created to balance the four “pillars” of Whistler’s vision—community, environment, tourism economy and sense of place.

 An update on the model was presented to mayor and council this month, and painted a picture of a resort community projected to see both its resident and visitor numbers continue to rapidly grow over the next decade.

Day-trippers are expected to nearly double within the next few years. The report also predicts Whistler’s resident population will continue to grow, with an additional 2,000 permanent residents and another 1,000 temporary residents. The Balance Model predicts a total population of about 22,000 people by 2040, a 57-per-cent increase over its current population of nearly 14,000.  

Factoring in day-trippers, overnight guests, seasonal workers and permanent residents, Whistler’s full-time equivalent population is forecast to grow from 40,000 today to 50,000 by 2040—although, if current trends continue, the resort isn’t likely to have enough staff to service the growing need. Due to the lack of bed-unit capacity—there are currently about 62,000 bed units in the resort, more than half of which are residential—workforce shortages are expected to rise to even more severe levels than what is currently being experienced. Over the next 18 years, the shortage of bed units could grow into the thousands.

“So without continued management or interventions, our current workforce shortage will grow to 15 per cent by 2040, equivalent to nearly 2,000 people. In terms of childcare needed, that would need to be about 200 licensed childcare spaces to meet the targets we have set for ourselves that we are currently not meeting, as well as keep pace with the current growth of the resident population,” said RMOW strategy analyst Becca Zalmanowitz during the presentation earlier this month. Next for the Balance Model is to examine possible solutions and strategies to mitigate the projected growth pressures. 

Next steps 

Now that the scenarios have been finalized, the RMOW plans to roll them out in greater detail in a final report and on its website. The municipality will also work with the Whistler Public Library to display the scenarios and garner community response. It will also partner with local organizations to host discussions on the scenarios, with a potential Whistler Sessions launch event still to be finalized. 

The RMOW said this work is already beginning to be implemented into the municipality’s strategic planning and discussions among senior management. 

After the presentation, Councillor Arthur De Jong credited Cullen and municipal staff for undertaking the work at a time when Whistler is already staring down the barrel of a number of systemic challenges. 

“We are facing regional growth. It’s there. We are facing dramatic climate change. It’s simply happening. The geopolitical condition is a really tough one,” he said. “Simply, at the end of the day, we will go as the global economy goes and geopolitically, how can you call that? So having adaptability, flexibility is so important in key elements of our planning.”

In November, the RMOW said the total cost of the project at that time was $96,218. In a follow-up email July 4, the RMOW said the total cost was $205,425. 

-With files from Robert Wisla