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The S word, again, and opportunity

On Monday of this week a Google search for "sustainability" came up with approximately 2,160,000 entries in .13 seconds. The next day the same search came up with about 3,220,000 results in .15 seconds.

On Monday of this week a Google search for "sustainability" came up with approximately 2,160,000 entries in .13 seconds. The next day the same search came up with about 3,220,000 results in .15 seconds.

Sustainability, it seems, is a growth industry.

Whistler’s Comprehensive Sustainability Plan isn’t quite as efficient as Google, but as the process of defining sustainability in Whistler enters its 24 th month, approximately 2 million ideas have been thrown out for consideration.

Here’s another.

On Christmas day a gondola ride with a Squamish resident led to a discussion about the proposed Wal-Mart in the Squamish Industrial Park. We quickly came to agreement (there was only three of us in the gondola car) that bringing a Wal-Mart into a neighbourhood generally doesn’t create new wealth or revenues, it sucks it out of existing businesses. And in the case of Squamish, most of those existing businesses are locally owned.

How important is it to have locally-owned, independent businesses? You could let ’em all go and then see. You could look at other industries, such as the media, and the type of service that a place like Vancouver gets when one company headquartered in another city owns both local dailies, one of the two national papers, half of the suburban weekly papers, and the television station with the highest rated news show.

Or you could look at why and what it is that keeps you here and keeps vacationers returning here. The physical environment is a big part of it, but so are the people. And some of those people are local business owners.

Some of these people are the ones who took a chance on Whistler in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when banks, hotel chains, chain stores and franchises wouldn’t touch Whistler with a 10-metre pole. They’ve been through tough times and good times; they’ve learned how the resort works and what makes it successful. And this collection of small, independent businesses has always been one of Whistler’s strengths.

This is all history. What does it have to do with Whistler’s future and a sustainability plan?

Business owners and managers are part of a larger equation that has to be solved for Whistler to be sustainable: how to keep enough of this town "open" or available so that future generations have opportunities here.

There have been sporadic efforts to develop seniors housing in Whistler, so that people who have lived here can retire here and we don’t lose that generation. A younger generation, the children growing up in Whistler, is also going to have a tough time staying in Whistler, if that is what they choose to do when they are ready to start their careers.

It could be that we also need a succession plan for the next generation of business owners and managers, many of the people who represent Whistler to the rest of the world.

Whistler might have already lost a generation of middle managers. These are the people who bought houses in Squamish and Pemberton in the last six or seven years – towns where real estate prices are rapidly getting out of reach of many. These people still have a stake in Whistler, but they don’t live in the community. In the next few years, as some of them move into top management positions or run their own businesses, we’ll discover whether this is important or not.

But Whistler also faces competition for these people. The expansion of mountain resorts across B.C. may be good for the overall tourism picture but it also poses a problem for Whistler. These resorts are not just competing for the same destination skiers and vacationers but also for employees, managers and entrepreneurs. How many people with some skill and ambition in the restaurant business, property management, landscaping or other service business see greater opportunities and lower costs at Sun Peaks, Fernie, Rossland or Golden? How many have left already?

In addition to losing part of the next generation of managers and business owners, some of the people who have been successful in Whistler, and contributed to Whistler’s success, are getting closer to retiring, or at least scaling back their work load. Some see the years prior to the 2010 Olympics as the ideal time to step back, cash in or do something new.

Some of these people have had the foresight and generosity to plan for the next generation themselves. They have mentored and assisted successors, future managers and business owners. They have, in effect, helped others create opportunities for themselves. They have been part of a sustainability plan without all the consultants.

The question is: is it enough?