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Exit stage south

Brent Leigh heads for West Vancouver

Brent Leigh is facing south. It’s morning, one meeting already behind him, and, seated on the Adventure Centre’s curving balcony, his shirt collar open and the sun glinting off a gold chain hung round his neck, he sips at a dose of caffeine. About 40 kilometres due south, shielded by Coast Mountain peaks and mounds, is West Vancouver, where CAO Grant McRadu is busy with the affairs of local government, a mess of traffic cones and heavy machinery peppering the highway between him and his new hire.

“He’s a purposeful manager,” says Leigh. “I know (McRadu) has good leadership drive, and I’m looking forward to working with all of them.”

Since 2004, Leigh has been working as deputy administrator with the District of Squamish, his second stint in the municipality’s employ. To some, the Adventure Centre is a beacon of controversy, an inefficient symbol of the new, and over budget to boot. To others, the Centre is an ideal gateway to a new town, one that is shifting from a natural resources economy to one more focused on tourism. Either way, Leigh is considered one of the key players in the Centre’s creation, just as he’s credited for helping attract Quest University. Further still, Leigh has been the managing director of the Squamish Sustainability Corporation (SSC), the economic development agency nestled in the Adventure Centre’s back halls.

In 2006, Leigh became the district’s liaison with the Squamish Oceanfront Development Corporation. The board nearly partnered with a private developer, a manoeuvre that squeaked through a tight council vote but bottomed out with the company citing a general trend of disapproval in the community at large. The whole process was launched anew this summer, with council leading the charge.

Whether steeped in success or blemished with failure, those days are fading rapidly to his personal past. Leigh tendered his resignation to council on Sept. 16, and he starts his new gig at the end of the month.

“I grew up in West Van,” he says, “so I understand it. I think where West Vancouver is trying to position itself is to get the right people on the bus and see where it’s going to go.”

Leigh has left the district’s employ before. In 1999, he took up a position with the district’s economic development arm. A new vision for the downtown was taking shape in certain community corners, and the near future promised the pitched politics that saw Ian Sutherland and the New Directions slate come to power — a sweep that let them transform much of the district’s planning strategy. In 2000, just a few years before that sweep, when Corinne Lonsdale was still mayor, Leigh turned his attention to Quest University in the hopes of securing a crucial component of the knowledge-based industries strategy favoured by the SSC. He left for Whistler in August.

“The first time I left Squamish, the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan (DNP) was not ratified and the MOU for the university was not moving ahead. And there was a council that, for their own reasons, was not pleased with my work.”

This time, he says, things are different. The district has an entirely different posture, one that Leigh sees as robust and ready, ideal for the expected population surge and the ever-present backdrop of sustainability, complete with economic and environmental lifelines. The Official Community Plan, the DNP, the renewed Oceanfront process — these, says Leigh, are “text book perfect” examples of community development.

“And I think Squamish, in the past six years, has made huge strides,” says Leigh. “Everyone knows what’s going on: our knowledge economy, Quest, Capilano University, the huge amount of development in policy that will serve Squamish for decades. We hear people say jobs, jobs, jobs. But the truth is we know exactly what will happen here. The resident base will increase and we will have exactly the right focus in terms of job creation.”

Of course, it’s not all employment lands and savvy planning paradigms. No tenure comes without its fair share of failures, and, much like outgoing Mayor Ian Sutherland, Leigh points to a failed stab at Oceanfront development as one of his biggest malfunctions. In the early days of the new millennium, the community was invited to Eagle Eye Theatre to hear the district’s pitch.

“We had a very good strategy for minimizing the financial exposure on the development of the Oceanfront and maximizing the revenue potential,” he remembers. “But I failed as the district representative to help the community understand that the business plan would be followed by a master plan.

“The path we’re on now — with a little cockeyed optimism — will be even better. It cost us more to get to the land use that will be optimal.”

Remember that comment about getting good people on a decent bus? There’s been enough of that, in Leigh’s view, to drown out any failings. There’s Dave Thomson, the SSC’s business lead, who, thanks to a district policy, is unable to comment on his guru’s impact. There’s also Deanna Wampler, SSC operations manager, and Lesley Weeks, manager of tourism development. Neither could be reached by press time.

“One of the nice things about my position,” says Leigh, “is helping people achieve their accomplishments. I think I was brought here to work with projects and strategize with municipal hall. That quickly became a transition to the Adventure Centre and the Oceanfront Lands. My philosophy is you’ve got to get great people doing great work.”

By now, Leigh is done his coffee. There’s housekeeping to do, transitional matters to take care of before Friday, his last as a district official. On Oct. 20, Leigh will drive down to West Van and take a seat on a new bus, this one steered by McRadu.

“Council there is very committed to their strategic planning, and the administration is, too,” says Leigh. “They have a clear mandate with their strategic planning in council, and the council wants to go from good to great.”