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While the Centre's aims are hard to argue against, its existence hasn't been free of controversy. Whistler's newly-elected mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, for example, has called its seed cash, which helped it to get started, "an inappropriate use of taxpayers' money." Others have grumbled that the Centre's substantial budget seems incongruous in a time of economic hardship. But Ho is convinced that the ill will comes from people who don't really understand the Centre's finances or what it has achieved. That includes helping to produce prize-winning community development plans, and churning about 30 local businesses, so far, through workshops designed to get them to swap their practices for more sustainable ones.
"I think people haven't taken the time to find out what they do," says Stephanie Sloan, a former councillor and realtor in Whistler with no particular ties to the Centre, who happened to be at a recent event sponsored by them. "It was Whistler's brainwave in the first place," she points out — not an idea foisted on the community. "It's our vision for the future."
The Centre is a non-profit, running on an annual budget of about $650,000 per year. Half comes from consultancy fees that the centre charges to its out-of-town clients, including the provincial government and other municipalities. About a quarter comes from Whistler, which shifted its budget for overseeing Whistler 2020 to the Sustainability Centre when it was founded; the Centre doesn't charge any additional consultancy fees for this service, says Ho. And the final quarter comes from a grab bag of other sources, including government grants, workshop fees and more.
Some, like Wilhelm-Morden, say they don't quite see why keeping the Whistler 2020 project running should cost as much as it does — about $190,000 a year (though Wilhelm-Morden admitted when we spoke that she didn't yet know much yet about the process, having just been elected mayor). Others think the price a very reasonable one. "My sense is that they're probably getting a hell of a deal. Otherwise they'd have to pay municipality workers to do it," says Mark Roseland, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Community Development at Simon Fraser University, which isn't affiliated with the Whistler Centre, but is familiar with its workings. "You want experts, and an enterprising non-profit with experience is a good place to be in charge of that."
The budget for the Whistler 2020 work is sure to decrease in this year's council budget discussions, says Ho, which probably means scaling back on that part of their job. "We just have to figure out what we can deliver, and do less," she says. "But if we spend less time on Whistler 2020, we can spend more on our other work."