Senior representatives of the Resort Municipality of Whistler recently returned from New Zealand, where they were invited to share some of the lessons Whistler has learned as an Olympic host and as a leader in resort development and sustainability.
Chief Administrative Officer Bill Barratt and General Manager of Policy and Program Development Mike Vance spoke with the acting prime minister of New Zealand about the RMOW's financial tools. Organizers and hosts of the 2011 Rugby World Cup invited the pair to share Whistler's Olympic experience, particularly with the unaccredited media and Whistler Live! Whistler was one of six municipal case studies in a workshop for local government managers. The Queenstown Chamber of Commerce held a day-long seminar on Whistler that attracted 140 participants. Barratt and Vance also held meetings with Tourism New Zealand and the Natural Step.
"The RMOW has been acknowledged on several occasions for its award-winning approach to sustainable community planning," a municipal press release about the triumphant tour states. "Whistler has been cited as a benchmark for many municipalities just starting to create their long-term plans and community visions."
A second release from the municipality announced that the Local Government Management Association of B.C. is holding its annual conference in Whistler this week, bringing 300 delegates to town. "It is no coincidence that organizations are gathering here to discuss best planning and reasonable business practices," Barratt says in the release. "Our community's vision and strategies for moving towards a sustainable future are being recognized across the country."
And yet for all the national and international recognition Whistler receives, the RMOW - and perhaps to a lesser degree Whistler Blackcomb and Tourism Whistler - do not seem to get the same love at home. Whistler taxpayers, ticket buyers and Tourism Whistler members - the people paying many of the bills and most directly affected by these organizations' policies - retain and regularly exercise their right to be critical. There seems to be a wide gulf between what others see in Whistler and what Whistlerites see.
Part of it comes from an inherent suspicion that governments and other organizations that collect money from us are not spending our dollars prudently. The Reagan Revolution of the early 1980s emphasized this, even nurturing the idea that governments in general are incompetent. And it still holds remarkable influence - despite numerous examples that government "deregulation" has caused havoc. The financial meltdown that began on Wall Street being just one example.
Some of Whistler's problems stem from communication issues. The post-Olympic "party" is an interesting case. The issue wasn't on anyone's radar until Councillor Grant Lamont voiced his objection to the municipality spending $150,000 (the original budget) on a "party" when other organizations were facing cutbacks. Councillor Lamont certainly has the right, if not the duty, to make his objections known. As he says, the money, which comes from the hotel tax and therefore has restrictions on how it can be spent, could be used to fund the now-defunct writers festival or some other tourism-related effort, rather than a "party."
The seed was planted and the outrage began to grow. It found fertile soil in the month or more it took the rest of council to fully explain the rationale for the expenditure, and that it was considerably more than a "party." But by that time it was too late to change many minds.
Pay parking and spending on Olympic jackets for municipal staff have also brought heavy criticism in recent months. These are relatively simple, easy to understand issues. There are subtleties to them but in most people's minds they are black and white, bottom line issues: the muni is taking more of our money and not spending it wisely.
Meanwhile the Whistler 2020 document and Whistler's sustainability plans, which most of us have yet to fully understand, are earning praise from experts.
It's a dichotomy not easily explained, the Jekyll and Hyde personas of Whistler.
Some of the local dissatisfaction just goes with the territory. Some of it has been brought on by reneging on commitments that couldn't be kept - promising to move the asphalt plant by June 1 comes immediately to mind. Some of it may be related to a challenging economy and the uncertain times ahead.
And maybe we all need to work a little harder at understanding one another.