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A long way around to where we began

In the late 1990s, when Whistler started down the road to a new official community plan with the Whistler 2002 document, things were good.

In the late 1990s, when Whistler started down the road to a new official community plan with the Whistler 2002 document, things were good. Business was still growing each year, some affordable housing projects had been built, snow was plentiful and paranoia about air travel and terrorism was non-existent. Skiers and snowboarders had even decided to try and share the slopes. Whistler’s biggest issues were spiraling housing costs and saying no to new development proposals.

By 2002, when work began on what is now called Whistler 2020, the community’s comprehensive sustainability plan, things had changed, within Whistler and in the rest of the world. Business had started to decline, employee housing projects dried up, 9/11 had changed people’s travel plans, and even the snow didn’t seem quite as reliable. This was only the beginning of about a five-year trend, and admittedly trends are easier to spot in retrospect than to forecast, but it didn’t change the course Whistler was about to set out on.

Sustainability was the buzz-word. Every decision was going to be measured against the three legs of the sustainability stool: social, environmental and economic sustainability. The early adopters of The Natural Step produced the Whistler. It’s Our Nature household toolkit in February of 2002, which explained the principles of a sustainable society and included recipes for non-toxic bathroom cleaners, among other things. A popular sustainability speaker series was also launched that winter.

So with public, corporate and media support for the CSP process and the sustainability theme Whistler began by asking the community to help choose the consultants who would shape the CSP. And then promptly ignored the community’s choice.

The CSP sputtered along for a while, eventually costing the head of the planning department his job, before new people were brought in and the process finally got on track in 2003. In December of 2004 Whistler council adopted Volume I of the CSP, which contains the vision, values, priorities and directions for the resort community. Last August council adopted Volume II, which includes the 16 (now 17) strategies developed by task forces to guide Whistler towards achieving the vision of success and sustainability as defined in Volume I.

Those who have followed this thing through its eight-year gestation period should be checked to see if they still have a pulse. But for all its flaws, the Whistler 2020 CSP is the document that guides decision-making in Whistler. As such, a progress report was included in the municipality’s annual report, which was presented last month. Within the 100-plus pages of the annual report are dozens of pages filled with boxes and grids intended to show the progress Whistler is making on the specific tasks within the 17 strategies. There are, to be sure, many worthwhile tasks. But the gap between a vision for Whistler’s future and some of the tasks seems enormous.

The Reader’s Digest version of the CSP may be boiled down to this:

Whistler’s vision is to be "The premier mountain resort community – as we move toward sustainability."

We have five priorities backing up that vision: Enriching community life; Enhancing the resort experience; Protecting the environment; Ensuring economic viability; and Partnering for success.

Within each priority there are "directions", statements relating to the priorities that provide more specific examples of what Whistler would like to be.

The 17 strategies, and the specific tasks in each strategy, are intended to make the whole thing a reality.

But there is a breakdown somewhere between the specific tasks and the priorities/directions. For example, under "Enhancing the resort experience" there is a statement about "…the resort community’s unique and authentic sense of place…" But defining that sense of place is perhaps the biggest issue facing Whistler at the moment.

After five years of declining business – the period when the CSP was being formulated – and with the 2010 Olympics curiously bookmarked in many people’s minds as some sort of millennial turning point, we are in a time of substantial uncertainty. A generation of business and community leaders is on the verge of retiring and too little has been done to welcome a new generation.

Similarly, under "Partnering for success," there is a statement that: "Residents, taxpayers, business and local government hold a shared vision for the resort community…" There is some common ground, but to say that in 2006 there is a meaningful, commonly held, shared vision for Whistler is a stretch. With Whistler-Blackcomb’s parent company, Intrawest, currently reviewing its future plans one of the most important partners has difficulty sharing its vision for Whistler, let alone being part of a common vision.

These are complex issues not easily resolved. Over the years that the CSP has taken to evolve these complex issues have been subdivided and broken down to a list of tasks that can be ticked off in boxes. But the more fundamental questions of who we are and what we want to be seem as distant as they have ever been.