Pushing the sustainability envelope 

Centre for Sustainability searches for contracts, hopes to bring TedxWhistler back

A year and a half after the Centre for Sustainability was first created, executive director Cheeying Ho wants to keep pushing the envelope.

On Tuesday morning, Ho said she wants the centre to focus on more than just education - and also get into areas like idea creation.

That could translate into another TEDx event coming to Whistler in the next year. Or, it could mean the centre focuses more on research, such as best practices in climate adaptation for mountain communities, she said.

"We want to be thought leaders," said Ho. "We really want to keep pushing the envelope."

The past year has been busy for Ho and her team.

Beyond a large contract with Williams Lake and working with Whistler 2020 and the Official Community Plan update, the organization assisted Ucluelet, 13 resort communities in the province and the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District.

They have also supported the Lil'wat First Nation with a funding application to do a community energy plan. And they hosted the inaugural TEDxWhistler event in February with speaker Wade Davis.

Several other municipal contracts may also be imminent for the centre, said Ho.

"We have various things in the pipeline," said Ho. "There is lots of interest, and we are hoping some of those things will become contracts very soon."

Ho said she is confident the centre will eventually become financially independent from the municipality.

Achieving that goal is challenging though, with the centre needing to bring in $700,000 this year just to break even. A significant portion of that money goes towards the centre's salaries.

Moreover, many people in the Whistler community have pointed out with concern that right now almost half of the centre's money comes from the Resort Municipality of Whistler.

"Obviously, I have to believe that (financial sustainability) is possible," said Ho. "We are only a year and a half into being out there, so just developing our brand and getting people to know our work takes a while. But once our reputation starts getting known, we definitely will get lots of work."

Ho added the centre needs to look outside Whistler's boundaries to bring in revenue to bolster local sustainability initiatives.

"The key model is that we are working inside Whistler and outside Whistler," explained Ho. "We need to make sure Whistler is successful in its sustainability efforts, so we can export that expertise."

To achieve those goals, Ho and her team at the Whistler Centre for Sustainability have been stretching the reach of sustainable planning to several communities throughout British Columbia. And as the years progress, they hope to take that knowledge to other parts of Canada as well.

For example, Ho wants the centre to start offering a larger range of products to potential client municipalities.

Currently, the centre offers the whole suite of sustainability planning options. But for smaller communities who may not have enough resources, a pared-down version of the centre's services may prove more fruitful.

"Whistler's process took forever and it is amazing," said Ho. "But most communities can't afford to do that. What we want to offer is, for a smaller chunk of money, a very streamlined option to assist them in getting into action within six months."

A streamlined option would help make small municipalities aware of what sustainability planning is all about.

"From a social marketing perspective, people are more likely to do more if they commit to one thing," said Ho.

"While we can offer the whole thing, we can also specifically offer for small communities a streamlined package to get them off the ground in six months that they can later build on."

But as Ho continues to push the centre forward, one challenge the organization continues to face is a misunderstanding in the Whistler community about what her team is doing.

Asked if there is one thing she wants the community to know about the centre, Ho was quite clear in her answer.

She said it is that the organization is committed to the resort municipality.

"We are totally committed to making sure the Whistler community continues to accelerate," said the executive director. "We are learning things as we work with other communities that we are bringing back to Whistler."

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