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Getting on with it - Williamson on Whistler beyond the Games

" The tide turned at Whistler when Rob Boyd was hassled by local sponsors for revealing a bit of extra baggage on the cover of The Answer. I wish I still had a copy of that picture. It's classic Whistler..." Dave Williamson Some Whistlerites talk.

" The tide turned at Whistler when Rob Boyd was hassled by local sponsors for revealing a bit of extra baggage on the cover of The Answer. I wish I still had a copy of that picture. It's classic Whistler..."

Dave Williamson

Some Whistlerites talk. Some moan and complain. Others just slash the mayor's tires to get their point across. But a few citizens -you mostly know who they are - stow away their own personal issues and get on with the job.

Dave Williamson is a member of the latter clan. Over the last thirty years, the co-owner of Cascade Environmental has served on just about every volunteer board you can imagine. World Cup organizing committee? Check. Chamber of Commerce? Check. AWARE? Check. The never-ending design and advisory boards and steering committees and consultative groups that the RMOW seems to spin out like donuts at a Tim Horton's?  Check, check and double check.

He laughs. "I guess I just like to stay involved," he says with just the slightest hint of irony. "But seriously," he continues, "Whistler is a small community. Everyone needs to pitch in and do their bit."

And now, he adds, is not the time to throw up your hands and give up on the place. Whistler, says Williamson, needs your help more than ever.

He sighs deeply. Takes a long breath. His usual humorous tone is gone now. "We've reached an important crossroads in our evolution," he says. "For many of us at Whistler, the Olympic Games were a good thing. From a personal and professional development point of view, I think a lot of people benefited from the experience. But the Games are over now. We don't need to all march in Olympic lock step anymore. What we need now is to rediscover our character. Plug in to who we really are."

Another long sigh. "Unfortunately," he says, "we just don't seem to have the leadership to develop that new storyline. Whistler is lost right now - without direction. And from what I see around me, the happiness factor is at an all time low among Whistler residents. Businesses are going under and people are leaving town. But it doesn't seem like the people in power get that yet."

Take the RMOW, he says. "As an environmentalist, I was really supportive of the municipality's move to a greener model of governance. But I fear now that they've abandoned fiscal responsibility. And that, to me, is just as unsustainable... "

A firm believer in the tri-pillar concept for a healthy and sustainable community - fiscal, environmental and social - Williamson's own lifestyle speaks volumes on the subject. Though he's never been one to shy away from giving his opinions on issues, it's more in the way he leads his day-to-day life that you see the man's commitment to responsible living.

But once again, I'm letting my words get ahead of the story. So where did we leave off last week?

Oh yeah. It was the mid-80s and Williamson was still working on the trails and maintenance crew for Whistler Mountain. "It was such a fun time," he says. "Every day brought new work adventures." Whether it was decking the mountain out in snowmaking (a revolutionary move), or cutting new trails, or re-greening the slopes, Williamson generally found himself in the thick of the action.

But somehow, he still managed to get out on the mountain and play on a regular basis. I figure this is around the time I first got to know him. We shared mutual friends and we both loved to ski in the same wild part of Whistler - the mountain's densely forested west flank. In those days, Dave was a much hairier guy. And to see him emerging from the woods on a snowy February morning, his full-bearded face and unibrow bristling under his toque - well, not to put too fine a point on it, but he reminded us more often of a werewolf than a human (yes, there might have been recreational drugs involved in that assessment).

Whatever. It was the '80s. To us he was The Wolfman - or Wolfie for intimates... and he played that role to the hilt.

Wolfie loved being on the mountain. But his well-entrenched work ethic wouldn't allow him to ski-bum in the same way his buddies did. He needed balance in his life. Family, work, recreation and community involvement - for Williamson it was all about finding the right equilibrium between all four.

But he knew his stint with Whistler Mountain was quickly winding down. When his boss and mentor Rod Macleod was sacked, he understood the end was nigh. "I'd been put in charge of 'special projects,'" he explains. "But when they moved me in with the groomers it was time to go." But what to do? "I'd just joined the Whistler planning commission and I could see that the town's development was quickly moving forward. I had the schooling and the inclination. Suddenly I started reading about this company hired to do an environmental study for Chateau Whistler. That's when I decided: 'What the heck. Might as well hang out my own shingle too.'"

And that's basically how Cascade Environmental Resource Group got its start. And his timing was bang on. There was just one problem though - from the very first job he pitched to Intrawest, he realized he couldn't do it alone. "So I called Mike at Nelson Environmental (the company hired to do the Chateau work) and asked him if he could give me a hand."

They worked well together and continued to develop their association. "At first I thought I'd be doing a lot of land-use stuff - a lot of on-mountain projects," says Dave. "But I soon realized the bulk of the work was in environmental studies. That was an adjustment." But the work kept pouring in. By 1999, the two companies were ready to merge. "Mike had a few employees in Squamish and I had a few in Whistler. He wasn't big enough alone and neither was I. But together we had critical mass."

The merger's timing couldn't have been better. For Olympic fever was about to hit Whistler - and environmental consultants were suddenly more valuable than gold. But before he knuckled down to all the proffered Games work, Williamson had one last adventure he needed to do. "I told Mike I'd be back in time to address all our new projects," he recounts, "but first the family was going to Western Australia for an extended surfing safari."

Surfing safari? Western Australia? Williamson laughs at my quizzical look. And then he explains. "We'd gone to Maui in 1995 with the idea of getting back into windsurfing now that we had two small kids. But there was no wind. One day we saw [Whistler photographer] Greg Griffith walk by with a surfboard under his arm and we got talking about surfing. He told me to just go out and rent a board and get on with it. So that's what we did."

It was love at first surf. "I'd recently switched to snowboarding, you know, and this was so similar. The activity. The lifestyle. I was hooked right away." And so was the family. Karen, Tori and Graham picked the trips; Dave's only criteria were that there be waves.

The IOC announced the winning Olympic bid in July of 2003. That month, Williamson told his partner he was moving to Margaret River for the next seven months. Sure, there were risks in leaving the business for that long. But Dave knew he'd be back in plenty of time to address all the new work.

"It was an amazing trip," he says. "It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and we took full advantage of it."

And his surfing? "It just got better and better," he says. "And it totally reinforced my love for the sport." He laughs a bit self-consciously. "And the culture shift from snow-based sports is seamless."

Back to Whistler. It's obvious to me that Williamson is a glass-half-full kind of guy. But even he doesn't see a lot of sunny moments on the horizon for his hometown - at least not in the short term. "We're gonna go through some tough times," he predicts. "There's going to be more business hardship and core Whistler people leaving town. Eventually through adversity, I believe we're going to regain our character - but we're going to lose a lot of good things in the meantime. It's going to be very, very hard."

That's no reason to give up, though. "We've seen tough times here before," asserts Williamson. "And it's shown us how resilient we can be. With a little bit of focus - and maybe some serious soul-searching - I'm confident that most of us will re-discover why we decided to invest so much of ourselves in Whistler in the first place." He pauses for a long beat. "You know," he concludes, "for most of us it was never about the money..."