January 05, 2012 Features & Images » Feature Story

Getting Greener 

The Centre for Sustainability is helping Whistler find its way to better, cheaper, greener living.

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For the first three and a half years of operation, the Centre had access to $120,000 per year "seed money" to help it get up and running. This came from the resort's old two per cent "hotel tax"; resorts like Whistler charged hotel guests this additional tax, and some fraction of the total was returned by the government to the 14 B.C. resort municipalities for suitable development projects, like developing a Centre for Sustainability. In 2010, Whistler received a grand total of $7.5 million from the reinvented pot of gold — vastly more than any other resort community. This seed money is the "tax dollars" that Wilhelm-Morden takes issue with. But Ho counters that argument. "That money was for building tourism opportunities. I think it was really innovative of Whistler to spend it this way," she says. "And it's not local tax dollars, at all, no matter how you look at it." As of Dec. 31, 2011, this issue became a moot point: that cash stream was only intended to help get the Centre running in its early years. It has now run dry, and the Centre has to stand on its own two feet (appropriately, in other words, it has to be financially sustainable).

Is that likely to happen? The jobs the Centre pulled in for 2011 suggest that it is. This year, the Centre earned $360,000 — more than half of its total budget — from external contracts, including with the Lil'wat Nation, Sun Peaks resort, Invermere, Kimberley, Osoyoos, Fernie, Harrison Hot Springs, and more. In December 2011, it won a $50,000 contract to help the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District create its integrated sustainability plan.

All this cash goes towards paying subcontractors for specific jobs, travel, promotional material, events and activities, and the wages of the five staff members. Ho declines to confirm her salary, saying only "I get paid well. Some people feel that's unfair because of the current economic conditions."

Ho was headhunted for her position back in 2008. Before this, she was the first executive director of Smart Growth BC – a non-governmental organization created in response to growing concerns about the negative impacts of urban sprawl on both the environment and the happiness of people living within it. Its goal was to help promote "fiscally, socially and environmentally responsible land use and development" through education and policy advocacy. Though it's hard to point to any specific developments that turned out differently because the organization existed, it boosted awareness around the issues. The group produced neighbourhood plans for Maple Ridge, Squamish, Oliver, and Prince George, held annual conferences, advocated for farmland protection in the Vancouver area, and more. "The term 'smart growth' is now part of the lexicon of most local governments in B.C. — this was not the case before the organization was created," says Ho.

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