The path once travelled

"All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership."

— John Kenneth Galbraith

The acclaim for Whistler’s leadership in sustainability practices, environmental stewardship and innovation continues to role in. In recent years Whistler has won awards for the Whistler 2020 Comprehensive Sustainability Plan, for its municipal budget, and for its sewage treatment plant, among other things. If more municipalities thought about the environment the way Whistler has, the globe would be in better shape.

The emphasis on the environment and sustainability is also believed by many to be the way of the future for tourism. Not only is it the right thing to do for the planet, it is also a way to distinguish Whistler from other resort communities. More and more, the theory is, vacationers will look at the environmental footprint of a place like Whistler when they decide where to spend their holiday dollars. Protecting the environment is also a good marketing tool.

But for all its good work in planning for the future, Whistler is a community in trouble right now. The list of challenges over the last four years is well known. Cumulatively, those challenges are taking their toll. Not just in some abstract measurement such as room nights but on a personal level – the business that has had to cut staffing and service levels, or the shop owner with minimal inventory because he can’t afford to re-stock until he’s sold what he has. These sorts of compromises are seen and felt by visitors, and weaken the whole resort.

One of Whistler’s greatest strengths has always been its vast and varied collection of individuals and individual businesses. One only has to visit a place like Mont Tremblant, where Intrawest not only operates the on-mountain facilities but also built the village and is therefore the landlord for most business, to see how important that diversity of ownership is.

The problem with individual and independent businesses is just that; they are individual and independent. To get them to act collectively can be frustratingly difficult. But it can be done.

"There is no use whatever trying to help people who do not help themselves. You cannot push anyone up a ladder unless he is willing to climb himself."

— Andrew Carnegie

In 1982 the fledgling, wannabe international resort of Whistler was hit by a series of disasters. The new Keg building in the village caught fire just days before it was to open in January. In March a wall of snow slid off the roof of the unfinished conference centre, shearing off fascia boards and damaging the roof. But most devastating of all was the economic recession. The municipality’s Whistler Village Land Company was millions of dollars in debt and its liabilities added up to nearly $20 million. Its only asset was land that no investor would touch. Municipal staff had to take a 2.5 per cent pay cut and were asked to work three days of the year without pay.

As most people know, the province eventually stepped in to take over all of WVLC’s assets and liabilities and maintained the original plan for the village. While not everyone survived those early years, people were united behind the plan to build Whistler and turn a garbage dump into an international resort. It was understood that everyone would sink or swim as a collective whole.

The point of this history lesson is that in tough times there was a plan and most people understood it. Those were simpler times and Whistler was a much smaller town, but the formula for working its way out of the difficulties was laid out by community leaders and the community members bought into it. The formula in 2005 is the same.

It begins with communication. Everyone has to understand the problems and the proposed solutions. That was the idea behind Tourism Whistler’s members meeting on Wednesday. Frustrations were expressed, marketing plans were reviewed, questions and ideas put forward. No magic formula to right all wrongs was produced, but some dialogue was initiated. The idea that communication is a two-way street was re-introduced.

Sustainability, as Whistler has learned, is a principle supported by three legs: economic, social and environmental. Remove or weaken one of the legs and the principle sags or collapses. That, too, was part of the message at Wednesday’s meeting: not enough attention has been paid to the economic leg of the sustainability platform.

"Pull the string and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all."

— Dwight D. Eisenhower

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