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Do you care, Whistler?

By G.D.

By G.D. Maxwell

When I used to consult with clients who were struggling to keep their businesses solvent or were stuck in the minefield of transition from small, entrepreneurial companies to larger, professionally managed ones, I’d always ask them the same question to get things started. "What business are you in?"

It was surprising how often they got the answer wrong. Some weren’t sure, some had defined their enterprise too narrowly, some too broadly, and some had just grown so fast they’d never really gotten a handle on exactly what they were doing.

Managing transitions well is a large part of what success is all about. This is true in your personal life – jobs to careers, single to married, childless to parental – in the lives of businesses and even in the lives of towns and their variants, Resort Municipalities.

We, as in Whistler, are at the crossroads. We are changing tempo, moving from go-go growth to sustainable maturity. Our voices are cracking and we’re sprouting hair in the most unusual places. We have entered the dreaded adolescent zone.

As adolescents, we make stupid mistakes; it comes with the territory. They don’t seem stupid at the time but assuming survival to adulthood, we often look back on them and shudder at what might have gone wrong.

Whistler is in the process of making a stupid mistake. By Whistler, I mean specifically the mayor and half the sitting council. In their quest to attract more conference business, they’re about to let the conference tail wag the ski resort dog. They’re inviting the World Economic Forum to hold their annual meeting in Whistler. And they’re doing it in secret. Behind closed doors. Without public consultation. A backroom deal to end all backroom deals.

They oughta be ashamed.

Since last May, talks have been going on between our elected leaders, members of the WEF, representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office and the provincial government, and selected business leaders of our happy mountain home.

The talks have been kept secret. I guess this is a new variant of transparent, open government our councillors promised us at the last election. They were secret because the WEF’s Toronto lawyer wanted them kept hush-hush. He, that is to say the WEF, were being sensitive to the Swiss’ feelings. The WEF didn’t want the Swiss – the WEF annual meetings have been held at Davos since their beginning in 1971 – to know they were on the prowl for a prettier dance partner, one with better hotels and restaurants.

So the meetings weren’t open to the public and weren’t discussed in public. If you asked anyone about them, you’d get stonewalled.

The PMO was involved. That’s probably because WEF meetings attract the world’s business elite, top academics, celebrities, world leaders, enough security to invade most Third World countries and what has become the usual gang of protesters and demonstrators. It may also be because in his waning years, Jean Chretien is more and more anxious about his legacy, his place in history, a place that would be handsomely enhanced by finagling the WEF to meet in Canada on a biannual basis – the plan being to alternate between Davos and Whistler.

Provincial government representatives were involved. They, of course, would do just about anything to put B.C. on the world map as something other than drawers of water and hewers of wood.

And business "leaders" of Whistler were invited to express their views. Not surprisingly, many in the luxury hotel trade were in favour. Participants to the WEF would suck up maybe 5,000 hotel rooms and they don’t want the cheapies.

Many in the food and beverage biz support the initiative. Davos is, in foodie terms, synonymous with consumptive delights – the more extravagant, the better.

Oddly, or perhaps not, Whistler-Blackcomb is not in favour.

On the surface, that position isn’t hard to understand. Charlie don’t surf – the WEF don’t ski. In a week of jam-packed meetings, schmoozing and networking, the beautiful people allow themselves one sport day. In the meantime, they occupy warm ski beds, beds not rumpled by passionate skiers. They meet late in one week, all weekend and into the next week. That preempts two tourist weeks. And let’s not even think about the gauntlet of riot-geared police skiers are going to have to negotiate if they want to get to the hills, which, from a purely selfish point of view – my selfish point of view – will be gloriously devoid of skiers... assuming I can get past the troops.

And what does the community think about all this? Who gives a rat’s ass? Not the mayor. Not at least half of council. Not the hoteliers. Not the restaurateurs. Not Tourism Whistler who have been blinded by the possibility that landing the WEF may bring funding for a new $22 million conference facility for them to manage.

Oh, wait a minute. The community was consulted. I forgot. The Muni hired McIntyre & Mustel Research to conduct a telephone survey to gauge the communities acceptance of... well, of what? The survey questions – asked of a whopping 301 Whistlerites – never mentioned the WEF by name. It did allude to conferences, possible protests and the fact this kind of conference would occur right in the middle of ski season. Gee guys, glad you asked.

After all this deliberation, two closed-door votes were taken on whether or not to court the WEF. Three councillors voted in favour; three voted against. The mayor was in favour.

Armed with this clear and convincing mandate, Hiz Hughness, Ted Milner, and Suzanne Denbak trotted off to New York last week to court, and be courted by, the WEF. What was the result? Who knows? A fuzzy press release this week mentioned talks and the possibility of the WEF coming to town. Someone close to the action suggests it’s well beyond that. Quite possibly the WEF’s been left with the impression that if they decide they want to come, they’re welcome.

Maybe we’ll be told about it before it happens. Maybe not. I don’t know about you, but the whole thing pisses me off. Why the closed doors? Why not at least consult the community when council itself is so clearly split on the issue? Why hasn’t someone blown the whistle before now? What happened to open government? Who the hell do the mayor and councillors think they are?

It may be too late to do much about this. It will certainly be too late if there isn’t some action taken. So it’s your choice. You can either rain down a firestorm of letters and phone calls on Muni hall or you can have another toke and get on with your apathetic lives. Your choice.