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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…”