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.
“I don’t know too many people who moved to Whistler to get rich,” says Harley. “Most of us moved here to live a lifestyle that was significantly different from what we left behind in Ontario or Quebec — or even downtown Vancouver. And we were prepared to make certain sacrifices to be here. That’s why I think most of us understand how important it is to honour — and protect — our quality of life at Whistler.” A pause. “For without it, we’re nothing…”
Harley is afraid that Whistler might be approaching its own tipping point. He’s still not sure which way it’s going to tip. But he has his doubts. “It’s not too late,” he says. “But we aren’t going to solve our problems by sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring the challenges facing us. More than ever, Whistler needs a strong, unified vision for the future.” And not just a well-worded document that gets ignored by the engineering department, he says, but a conceptual road map that everyone embraces; with precise goals and objectives that ties very clearly back to remembering and protecting what makes this place unique and special.
We need to figure out how we’re going to get past the Olympic development panic — and the inevitable downswing that will occur when the IOC leaves town, he says. “And how do we avoid being run over by the province which looks at Whistler as a cash cow that will only bring in more taxes if they can just make it bigger?” This despite the RMOW’s efforts to maintain a development cap. How can we recapture the missed opportunity of taking advantage of the train line that runs right to our door? This compared to simply expanding the highway in the hope that the increased capacity will somehow match the limits to growth here in Whistler. Intertwined with these challenges are some great opportunities too, adds Harley. “But without a clear vision, we won’t even see them.”
And lest you think that Whistler is too big to fail now, think again. Tourism is no different than any other industry. Poorly managed it too can fall flat on its face. “I worked in New England for a couple of years back in the late1980s,” he recalls. “And I was struck by these beautiful old resorts that were built at the turn of the last century — and were now mostly empty. Obviously there’d once been a market for these grand old places. But for whatever reason, they hadn’t evolved with the times…”
Whistler is in no immediate danger of falling prey to the same fate, he says. “But it’s a fine line between success and failure. In the end, it doesn’t take much for a place like this to tip in the wrong direction.”
Harley grew up along Southern Ontario’s Niagara Escarpment — in St. Catharines to be exact. “We skied in upstate New York,” he recalls, “and when we wanted to go to the ‘big mountains’” — he laughs — “we’d go north to Collingwood.”
Armed with a degree in environmental studies from the University of Waterloo and another in landscape architecture from nearby Guelph, Harley set off west in 1976 to seek his professional fortunes and pursue his love affair with skiing. After a winter ski patrolling and slinging beer in Jasper, he landed a job with a planning firm in Calgary. He thought he’d be put to work designing urban recreational parks and such. But it was not to be.
“My first week on the job,” recounts Harley, “the boss walked in and said ‘Who knows anything about ski area design?’ So I immediately threw up my hand and said, ‘I know everything there is to know about it’ — which was a slight exaggeration.” He smiles. “And the boss said ‘Fine. You’re in charge of this new ski area project we just landed because I don’t know the first thing about it...’ So I said OK.” He laughs. “And that’s how I got into the ski area design business.”
Coincidence or karma? Who knows? For that modest little job on a garbage hill in Edmonton — “I was learning by the seat of my pants,” chuckles Harley — set the young planner on a professional path that has led him around the world to work on some of the most interesting projects in the business. From Japan to Australia, from Korea to New England — with a heavy Northwest presence — Brent Harley has quietly built up an impressive resort design portfolio for himself and his firm.
But Harley’s career might have taken a much different path without the intervention of another well-known ski resort planner at Whistler. “In 1978, Paul Mathews hired me to come and work on the Blackcomb Mountain project,” he says. “It was an incredible time to be in the resort planning business. I worked at Ecosign for nine years. When I started we were still using Selectric typewriters. Creating a slope analysis map was a 60-hour ordeal of painstaking drawings and evaluations. When I left, we had progressed to computers that could deliver these incredibly accurate digital maps in less than half an hour…”
The work with Mathews and company was stimulating — and challenging. No question about it. But it was the location that really worked on the young planner. “I still remember my first impressions of Whistler clearly,” he says. “When I got here, I was supposed to meet Paul at their offices. But I had no idea where I was going. So when I got to Whistler, I stopped at the Petro-Can for directions. They told me to head north, but on the way, I decided to pull over at a little lakeside park I saw on the side of the road.” Harley couldn’t contain his emotions anymore. He slid out of his truck and literally jumped up and down with excitement. “Elation. Joy. Amazement. I felt them all. I was so happy to be here, I just couldn’t believe it.” He stops for a moment. Lets the memories of that day wash over him again. “You know,” he says. “Those feelings stay with me to this day. I still can’t believe how lucky I am to be here…”
And those feelings are never very far away, he adds. His concerns for the future aside, Harley maintains he is still as big a fan of Whistler as he was when he first stopped to celebrate on the shores of Alta Lake nearly 30 years ago. “Over the years, I’ve travelled to a lot of different resorts in a lot of different countries,” he says. “I’ve stayed in some wonderful mountain towns — places with great ambiance and beautiful surroundings. But none has ever managed to make me re-think my decision to live here at Whistler. This is still where I want to live. This is my favourite place in the world.”
He stops. Takes a long breath. “I just want to make sure that my children and my children’s children can say the same thing about Whistler too.”