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Opinion: Whistler—A consultant’s paradise

'Being this inefficient is a luxury other communities simply don’t have'
The Resort Municipality of Whistler gearing up for yet another round of forward-thinking "visioning journeys."

This week, Whistler’s mayor and council heard a presentation on the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s (RMOW) new-ish focus on Smart Tourism (ST), accompanied by a characteristically stiff and verbose, seven-pager of a report.

By typical RMOW standards, it is packed with buzzwords and jargon, using many words to say very little.

As explained in the report, in November 2023, the RMOW issued a request for proposals “seeking a consultant to lead the facilitation of a ST visioning journey” (emphasis added).

In December, a contract worth $42,000 was awarded to Vancouver-based consulting firm Resonance for the work, which held a visioning workshop in April.

According to the RMOW, the “primary output of this workshop will be a draft vision for the future of tourism in Whistler that will be shared in summer 2024.”

No word yet on which lucky consultant will get to turn the draft vision into a fully-realized, hallucinatory episode, but it already sounds good, doesn’t it? Paying someone to help us envision what the future might look like?

It’s such a good idea, in fact, that we just can’t help but do it every couple of years or so.

Case in point, Whistler’s new Smart Tourism initiative, with its fancy new committee and consulting fees, is not to be mistaken for (deep breath): Whistler 2020; the Official Community Plan; the Economic Partnership Initiative; the Strategic Planning Committee; Tourism Whistler’s recent “place-branding exercise;” The Balance Model Initiative; or the Whistler Sessions.

Yes, the OCP is mandatory, some of the listed initiatives are complementary, and some are at least partially funded by grants, but make no mistake: these initiatives all constitute a variation of the same work, often paying different people to “consult” on it, and then calling it different things.

And yes, “Smart Tourism” is one of council’s priorities—but one would think, with the term being nearly half over, it would make more sense not to start fresh with a new consulting firm, embarking on a new visioning journey, but to pull from the hundreds of hours of community discussion and consulting input the RMOW and Tourism Whistler have no doubt accumulated through initiatives like the Balance Model, the Whistler Sessions, the place-branding exercise, and the still-recent OCP review.

Being this inefficient is a luxury other communities simply don’t have.

In the past 10 years, we have seen task forces on resident housing and regional transit (of which today we have neither), and endless aspirational open houses with fancy, fine-tuned poster boards.

Where do we stand in 2024?

The housing situation is worse than it has ever been. Prices are out of control and more long-term locals are giving up the ghost every year. It’s buzzwords and rhetoric over results, 9.9 times out of 10.

Because for all the millions of dollars the RMOW has funnelled into the bank accounts of consulting firms with names like “Aspire” and “Innovolve” over the past decade, a fat lot of good it has done to improve the lives of the people who actually run this place: the workers, and the long-term locals.

The fact is, in 2024, it is harder than ever before to make a go of it in Whistler as a young person. This is not the fault of our local officials, and far from it—things are getting tougher everywhere. But at least the consultants know they can still count on us for an easy meal.

Judging from a cursory review of other B.C. municipalities, none seem to have such a circuitous, infinite relationship with consulting firms as Whistler.

Why is that? It’s simple, really. Whistler can afford it, and other communities can’t.

Hiring consultants is the best way to make it look like you’re doing something, even when you’re not. In that way, the consulting industry becomes a sort of makeshift political shield for the RMOW and our local elected officials.

Because the hard truth is there are rarely any actual answers to the big problems we face as a society, and certainly never any easy ones. When it comes to most issues, the best we’ve really got to go off are educated guesses. Bold, brash decision-making is more likely to yield unintended consequences and backlash than the promised quick results.

At most local governments, resources are often so scarce the only real option is to wait for higher levels of government to dictate your world with policy or bequeath you with funding.

And so the reality is, in many cases, the best thing a municipal government can actually do is… nothing.

In normal municipalities, this is simply an accepted fact. Here in Whistler, we expect, nay, demand progress, even if said progress amounts to chasing our own tail in perpetuity.

And so our local government, flush with a budget not afforded to other communities, obliges us. It strikes committees. It commissions studies. It hires consultants. It spends in circles, forever.

Whether or not we ever see results is almost beside the point, in this exercise—it’s the illusion of progress that matters.

Every year, when the tax-increase discussion comes around, the RMOW presents it as a balancing act between maintaining services, rebuilding reserves, and keeping taxes low.

That is no doubt true.

But when we talk about efficiency at municipal hall, a fantastic place to start would be to stop making faceless consulting firms richer with endless, vacuous, redundant make-work projects that produce no quantifiable results for Whistler residents.