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Thelma Johnstone saying goodbye but maintaining Whistler Spirit

Thelma Johnstone is saying goodbye to Whistler.

Thelma Johnstone is saying goodbye to Whistler.

After living here for 18 years, putting Whistler on the school board map, keeping Whistler’s future firmly in her sights on council, and charting the Whistler Chamber of Commerce through unprecedented growth, Johnstone is moving to sunny Whiterock and "retiring".

"I am going to miss a lot of people," said Johnstone looking wistfully around her tiny but orderly office at chamber headquarters in Creekside where she is president.

Floor-to-ceiling bookcases are stacked with papers and books, and her desk, alive with paperwork, could tell a thousand stories of the ideas that have come and gone since she joined the chamber in 1985.

With just enough room for a petite Johnstone and her computer behind the desk she may fit the "small is beautiful" idea but she thinks big.

She and other likeminded colleagues created the Whistler Spirit Program in the ’80s, which has been imitated but never equalled.

"I guess of all the chamber has done, I am most proud of that," said Johnstone who has overseen the growth of the chamber from 50 members to 550.

"I was invited to Scotland for example to talk about the Whistler Spirit Program and we’ve had inquiries from just about every ski resort in North America.

"We hear from these people that visitors tell them that they got good service in Whistler."

Johnstone still believes service is one of the keys to success in Whistler and she accepts the resort has not mastered it yet.

"We just feel like we are still on the way," she said.

She also led the drive for creation of the Employment Centre 11 years ago as part of plan to get and keep employees.

Johnstone arrived in Whistler in 1984.

"I came for a rest," she said laughing at the memory. Johnstone had been coming to the resort since the ’70s to ski with her two daughters and son.

In Richmond, her former home, she was chair of the school board and ran a small business.

When Whistler locals found out she had school board experience she was quickly recruited to help put forward Whistler’s concerns.

And in recognition of the work she did on the school board, which included the relocation of Myrtle Philip school, the increase in the number of school board representatives for Whistler, and aggressive lobbying on the school tax issue, she was named Whistler’s citizen of the year in 1988.

"It was such a surprise," said Johnstone, an avid skier who admits to suffering from "Whistler Syndrome" of working too hard to enjoy the resort.

"It just made me feel that I was so totally a part of Whistler. I really truly felt I was a contributing member of the community.

"Whistler has given me the opportunity to be part of a thriving community. It was so totally welcoming and has remained that way so I had the opportunity to take part and be part of just about anything I chose to in the community."

Johnstone believes this welcoming spirit is one of the greatest characteristics of the resort.

"I have found it such a welcoming community and it was so easy to get totally involved in the community," she said. "It’s been an absolute privilege to live in Whistler."

In 1988 Johnstone decided to leave the school board and run for municipal council.

"I thought it would be very interesting to be part of Whistler’s growth," said Johnstone.

"I wanted to see the continuation of the community plan. I also really agreed with the philosophy of the time and with Drew Meredith, the mayor at the time, that Whistler had reached a time where it had the infrastructure to look after the guests and grow as a destination resort, but we had nothing really for the people who lived here and that was where we really needed to concentrate."

"She was a real politician," said Meredith recalling the days they shared on council.

"She saw the big picture. She really knew the value of a dollar.

"I don’t ever remember her getting mad but I’ve probably seen her get even a few times."

Meredith believes Johnstone brought the chamber into the 21 st century and applauds all her contributions, including the Spirit Program and the Employment Centre.

"She is an excellent person," he said.

While Johnstone was on council Meadow Park Sports Centre was built, a new waste-water system was organized, and transit came to the resort.

She ran unsuccessfully for mayor in November 1996.

Throughout this time she continued her stewardship of the chamber of commerce.

"We think the world of her," said John Nadeau, chairman of the chamber.

"Probably the greatest thing she has achieved at the chamber is managing the growth from 50 businesses to over 550. That’s a huge growth.

"Everyone in the community will miss her. I hope that she comes back from time to time. She needs to check up on her baby from time to time."

While Johnstone feels she is leaving the chamber in good hands she does have some concerns about Whistler’s future.

"I think Whistler is very challenged at the moment," she said.

"People talk about buildout but I don’t think we’ve ever faced the real economic reality of it.

"Although we are a destination resort, recognized world wide for excellence, our economy has not been based strictly on tourism. It has been based on development.

"It is the dollars from development that have built the infrastructure and when that is complete then I feel the economic challenge is to find another way of handling those costs and not letting them fall all on the taxpayers."

She is hopeful that the move into Whistler of some high-tech companies and the focus on sustainability and its spin-off industries will help in this time of transition.

But for now Johnstone’s focus is on her future. She said she is looking forward to some quiet time.

"Although I’m sure I won’t be able to stand that for too," she added in the same breath.

She might also travel, help out the Olympic bid for the 2010 Games in Whistler and Vancouver, and volunteer. She might do many things.

Said Johnstone: "Who knows, I might come back to Whistler at some point."