Charting a course for Whistler’s future The navigational instruments have been three years in the making By Loreth Beswetherick In 1996 a new crew and captain looked at their ship. It was a good ship — a now famous vessel that had embarked in the early ’70s on a voyage that saw a group of visionaries map out and plunk the tiny town of Whistler boldly on the North American map as a dynamic, world-class ski resort. The vessel had got this far on this leg of its journey but, it was listing, and in need of some refurbishing. A fresh and creative crew was also needed to plan for the next leg of the trip that would see a sustainable resort community safely sailed into the 21st century. The fresh crew — a new council, a new mayor and a new administrator — were charged in 1996 with the task of charting the new course and navigating the ship into the uncertain waters of the future. The new council had inherited a municipal hall in disarray after the November ’96 election. The town had been without an administrator from December 1995. Peter Kent had been on a medical leave of absence before finally resigning his position. Kent’s absence on top of the resignation of bylaw superintendent Calvin Logue sparked a review of Whistler’s municipal procedures by Urban Systems consultants in January ’96. The ship was pulled into dry dock. A slate of four new councillors --— Ken Melamed, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, Ted Milner and Stephanie Sloan were voted onto the crew that November. They joined Dave Kirk and Kristi Wells who were game for the next leg of the voyage. Hugh O’Reilly took the mayoral compass from Ted Nebbeling, who now had his sights focused on provincial horizons, and Jim Godfrey took the helm of former administrator Kent in those last weeks of 1996. It took a while for the new team to gel and set collective sights in one direction, but they did despite their ideological differences. One of the first steps was to heed recommendations of the Urban Systems Organizational Review released in April of that year. Godfrey was largely responsible for implementing many of the recommendations to come out of that review. "He came into a situation that required a lot of work to create a corporate culture that was more innovative and enjoyable to work in," noted director of Parks and Recreation Bill Barratt, who had been filling in as acting administrator. One of those recommendations was to craft a shared vision for the community. Godfrey became the architect of what is referred to as Vision 2002. According to the Organizational Review, strategic planning is one of the most important and least understood exercises in local government. The value of strategic planning forces a municipal organization to develop a clear vision of where it is going or what it wants to be in the future. It establishes a clear set of values that support the vision. It recognizes the future external pressures and opportunities the organization will likely face and it takes stock of internal strengths and weaknesses of the municipality. It then creates a tangible set of goals and action plans to allow the organization to realize its vision by taking advantage of those external opportunities and internal strengths and by addressing external pressures and internal weaknesses. In simple terms, long-term planning lets an organization know where it is going and how it is going to get there. Until 1996, Whistler’s strategic planning was primarily tackled through the development of a five-year Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP). Although not a bylaw, the CDP identifies seven main goals. They include: providing a high quality of life; maintaining the quality of natural and built environments; continuing to improve the community recognizing it is an important aspect of enhancing the resort; expanding and diversifying the local economy; adopting a growth management approach and development planning consistent with other community goals; planning for long-term development of the resort and region and; taking a more active role in planning for the future of the regions surrounding Whistler. CDP temperature taking was done at the annual Town Hall gatherings with community feedback given through presentations of the Community and Resort Monitoring Program. The Organizational Review said this was one of Whistler’s strengths. "Continued openness and feedback through the regularly-held Town Halls uniquely separates the RMOW from most other municipalities." The review stated Whistler has set the right course in this respect. It had a clear set of goals — or "mini vision" statements — imbedded in its CDP but there was no clear, single vision or mission statement guiding the local government. "Buried in the text of the CDP are hints of value statements but they are not highly defined in any significant way. Individual councillors and staff each had varying senses of the municipality’s overall vision depending on their individual situations or areas of interest." The new crew set out to redress the situation and chart a course for the future. But it was not solely because of the review that they embarked on creating a shared vision. The process has also become a way municipalities, more like corporations, do business now. "Certainly the Organization Review talked about the need to create a strategic focus," said Godfrey. "But then again, even if the organizational review had not been done, municipalities are all moving in this direction. It has just become a course of how you do business." It was at the Town Hall meeting in December 1997 that the phrase Vision 2002 was first officially tossed out and public participation invited. Whistler was set to prepare a vision of where it was going and what it wanted to be come the year 2002. Information was gleaned from past surveys. Staff embarked on collecting stakeholder input through workshops and presentations to the public, employees, community groups and corporations. Finally, comments and survey questions were tabulated at the Centre for Tourism Policy and research at Simon Fraser University. The results? They showed strong support for the nucleus of the Vision and the directions, with additional thought-provoking and helpful comments. From this, a final draft version of the Vision was compiled. Basically, it is complete. Vision 2002 is still in draft form but it is being used as a working document. Together with the financial and business plan it will form one comprehensive long-term strategic package "We have it essentially finished. We are using it as a guiding document for the things that we are doing," said Godfrey. "We haven’t had it printed and distributed yet because we are still trying to finalize the long-term financial plan and the two of them link in so carefully." The financial and business plan will round out the Vision package. Vision 2002, when finalized, will essentially be one package with three components, or volumes. Volume I provides historical reference and discusses the challenges facing the resort community. It summarizes what has been achieved in five years in the priority areas which include: Building a stronger resort community, enhancing the Whistler experience, working toward environmental sustainability and achieving financial sustainability. It states each priority is equal to the others in importance and all are interlinked. Volume II is the long-term financial plan which identifies the cost of the Vision and how the community will pay for it. The specifics — the directions and actions — are broken out into bit-sized chunks in Volume III, the five-year business plan. The public has had input and access to Volume I but nothing about the business or financial plan has been released yet. They too are in draft form and have yet to be adopted by council. The hope was to wrap up the package before the November 1999 election but that is not likely now. O’Reilly said the financial and business plans are in draft form and a series of workshops have been held for councillors to go over the documents. "Council received it a couple of weeks ago," said O’Reilly. "The financial plan talks strictly to projects and the funding sources and the financial tools. But the business plan is, here is the year 2000, there are the various departments and here are the initiatives that need to be done, then we go back to the financial plan and see how they are funded," said O’Reilly. "The financial plan talks about shortcomings, it talks about policies and about trying to live within our means. It’s a great piece of work. It has a lot of polices and principles... things council should be aware of," said O’Reilly. Godfrey said Volume II establishes a financial framework to achieve the vision outlined in Volume I. It looks ahead to 2007/2008. The business plan, he said, is a time-activated plan to achieve things set out in the financial plan. The vision — Volume I — will be reviewed constantly, but all three all closely intertwined and fluid documents. The financial plan is based on the principals that the community must live within its means and that service levels must be sustainable and to the standards of a world-class international resort. It also recognizes the municipality must operate as efficiently and effectively as a business, be responsive to citizen’s needs, be competitive and offer choices, thus maximizing the financial position of its taxpayers. The plan has established new policies for standard government funding sources, such as user fees, debt and investment management, works and service charges and property taxes. For example, there is less reliance on property tax as a resource and more equitable allocation between each property class. Revenues generated by the hotel tax are applied to tourism-oriented operations. Investment management and debt management are an important aspect of the long-term financial plan. "The financial document provides a set of benchmark comparisons between ourselves and other jurisdictions in order to make sure we are on the right track," said Godfrey. "Then it establishes some factors that will affect our financial position over time. It provides guiding principals and a set of policy statements." The five-year business plan, he said, is broken down into the same sort of priorities as outlined in the Vision and outlines what specific activities will be undertaken to achieve the priorities. "It’s a significant planning exercise when you take into consideration all the things that are constantly evolving." Godfrey said the TAG, or transportation strategy and the new environmental strategy both provided new information that has to be integrated. He said the plans will be reviewed on an annual basis to continually mesh new information "and make sure we are still on the right track." There has been, however, some question as to why the strategic planning is taking so long and there is some criticism things are not happening fast enough. Councillor Ted Milner won his seat in 1996 on a financial ticket. The core of his campaign was the municipality’s need for a long-term financial plan. Milner said is very happy with the concept and direction of the financial plan that has been developed. "But I am disappointed we haven’t got further." Milner said the public sector moves at a glacial pace and losing director of finance Ken Derpak mid-way through the process didn’t help. "I think it’s fine. It’s coming along," said Milner. "It’s on the right track but, as they say, you can still get run down by the train even though you are on the right track and you are not moving fast enough." He said the financial plan is divided roughly into "must have’s" — like sewer and water — and "like to have’s" such as parks, cultural facilities and green space. The financial plan contemplates the sort of infrastructure a town like Whistler, with its projected size, will need 10 to 20 years down the line. It then looks at what tax revenues would likely come in to fund the infrastructure — from property and hotel tax to works and service charges which will decline as build-out is reached. "It looks at the shortfalls that start to pop up and how we fund our wish list — like do we do bond issues or do we go to the provincial government for a resort tax on sales?" Milner said he doesn’t think the current provincial government will be too sympathetic to this request, but a new one might. "The old Socred government, for example, was very supportive of Whistler and the economic engine we have here." Milner said Whistler’s investment strategy is obviously a heavy component of the financial plan. This is where he takes some issue with staff and ran into some flak with councillors at a recent council meeting. He said when he saw what the municipality is doing with its $50 million-plus investment it "stood his hair on end." The municipality has more than $51 million invested in short- and long-term deposits, bonds and accounts. "We are sitting with 50 million bucks in the bank and there is really no oversight. It ties into the financial plan. This is the money you are going to use to carry out the long-term strategy." Milner said for this amount of cash an investment board should review the portfolio. He said marketable bond prices change every day and the municipality has made investments of up to seven years. "They could really lose a ton of money. If they lose $10 million in bond trading it’s going to change things in the financial plan." Milner said he would also have liked to have seen the Vision statement kept short and wrapped up before trying to hang goals and objectives — like the financial and business plans — on it. "In business you look for a mission and then attach the goals and objectives." Milner feels the long-term planning process derailed a little with Godfrey’s resignation in August for personal reasons. But he’s back... and all is on track. As O’Reilly said when he made public Godfrey’s intention to stay on as administrator: "We are in the middle of a long-term strategic plan of which Jim is the architect. To lose him would have meant a delay — or worse — in its attainment." Milner said everyone was pushing to have the strategic plan complete before the election. "When Jim decided he had to resign a couple of months ago we lost the wind out of a whole bunch of things. Now that he has decided to stick around I think it will be a whole new ball game. All this stuff was not finished. We were all very concerned about it and I am not sure who would have pulled it all together if there was no administrator." Godfrey said he thinks the finalization of the plan will now be left to the next council. He expects the Vision package will be wrapped up by early next year. "The nice part is all the work has been done. It will give the next council and opportunity to look at it and say, yes, we are supportive or, no, we would like to see this modified in this particular direction." O’Reilly said he thinks the time and investment made in the financial plan, the business plan and the vision are just starting to show benefits. "The environmental strategy, the TAG report — all these things directly fall out from all that work done previously. I would hope the next council will pick right up and carry on because the real benefits are in the next three to five years," said O’Reilly. Once finalized, he said the plans can be used as tools. "The community will be able to see clearly what our priorities are for the next five years and how we are going to pay for them. The next council will be rewarded by getting to start from this position after all the work has been done," said O’Reilly. "It’s a huge advantage. These plans are like sinking deep roots and I think these roots will benefit the community for years and years. They will help weather storm and adversity. The plans anticipate the world is not going to be the way it has been. We’ve been growing fast and dependent on things like development cost charges... those things are coming to an end and now the real challenge is sustaining what we have built. The long-term plan really clearly starts to identify the challenges — and there are challenges. We have to clearly be creative in finding answers," said O’Reilly. "To me, its fantastic work. Whoever is in the chair will benefit from the work staff has done and from this council’s direction." A new crew, come Nov. 20, may look up at the winter stars on the cusp of a new millennium, check the breeze and the co-ordinates and decide to set sail on a slightly different tack based on what they feel are in the best interests of the resort community. They will still, however, have Godfrey at the helm. It could even be the same crew but one with a fresh mandate from its constituents who have re-affirmed the direction. It is often simpler, after all, to change something slightly than craft it from the beginning. The ground work will be there, said Godfrey. "It is easier to modify and sometimes harder to build."