By Michel Beaudry
Doesn’t matter that the term gets used all the time. Doesn’t matter that real estate developers in Western Canada have convinced residents and politicians that it’s a viable concept. Brent Harley is adamant that it’s a non-starter. “There’s no such thing as ‘sustainable development’,” says the owner and president of Brent Harley and Associates, The Resort Planning Group. “It’s an oxymoron — a contradiction in terms. And the sooner people realize that, the sooner we can get on with the job of building a progressive mountain tourism culture in British Columbia.”
An active member of the local community for the last three decades — “We live down the road in Pinecrest but we still consider ourselves Whistlerites,” — Harley prefers to use the term “sustained prosperity” when talking about resort development. “It’s all about understanding the concept of ‘limits to growth’,” he says. “It’s all about acknowledging how easy it is to reach the tipping point where we actually start destroying the things that make a place unique, compelling and attractive.”
Remember Joni Mitchell’s dirge: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”? Well that’s what Harley is talking about. And in the tourism business, that’s the kiss of death…
How many people can this valley really support? When is bigger no longer better? What is distinct and special about this place? Are we keeping pace with demographic and environmental changes? Are we evolving with the times? These are the questions, says Harley, that need to be addressed if people are serious about attaining a level of prosperity here that is both sustainable and responsible.
“To be successful, Whistler has to be true to Whistler,” he explains. Not to Aspen or St. Anton or some faceless, plastic model that came out of somebody’s computer. Whistler has to be true to its Coast Mountain roots — with all the opportunities and challenges that this entails.
Most importantly, he adds, you can never rest on your laurels. A groundbreaker on so many fronts, Whistler is now recognized as one of the most successful mountain resort communities on the continent. Still, if it’s to continue to lead the way, it has to continue to challenge the status quo. And that means challenging the way “success” is defined here, argues Harley. “Whistler has really focused on the quantitative side of things in recent years,” he says. “But we’re not working on a mindless production line. We’re in the people business. There is a significant qualitative dimension to what we do here that needs to be better understood by all of us in this valley.” And that too relates back to the concept of sustained prosperity.