What exactly is the Whistler Centre for Sustainability?
That is a question many people in town are asking - especially since the municipality is faced with a multi-million-dollar shortfall over the next three years, and not all taxpayers are convinced the Resort Municipality of Whistler can support another non-profit organization.
In response to the public concerns, executive director Cheeying Ho, spoke to Pique Newsmagazine this week to explain what the centre is all about.
Sitting inside a boardroom at municipal hall on an unusually warm Thursday afternoon, Ho bubbled with enthusiasm for the group that caused her to move her family from Vancouver to Whistler.
"I want to create a centre of excellence that works within the community as well as leads other communities using Whistler as an example," said Ho.
"That is a really appealing model for me."
The centre - officially formed last December - is not a "centre" in the physical sense. More, it is a group of six people housed in municipal hall who will monitor the Whistler 2020 process, as well as work with Whistler and other B.C. communities on sustainability initiatives. Ho was hired in December; almost all the other five were already municipal employees.
Ho said the centre will work on all forms of suitability, from environmental to social to economic.
The centre's first big project will be to help the City of Williams Lake develop a sustainability plan. The centre, in partnership with Smart Growth B.C. and The Natural Step Canada, is in the final stages of signing a $175,000 contract with the northern city. Whistler will get $40,000 of that money.
"Was I surprised to get the contract? Yes and no," said Ho.
"When we put the proposal together, it was such a solid proposal that I knew we had a good chance."
The comprehensive project involves reading "everything" Williams Lake has done up to date on sustainability, including the city's official community plan.
"We would then do a visioning exercise with the community to look at their broad goals, and we would do a gap analysis and look at how to get there," said Ho.
Among several other things, the Centre for Sustainability is also involved with the Resort Collaborative Initiative. The project is led by the province to help resort municipalities in B.C. become more sustainable.
But the centre is also looking within Whistler to do work, said Ho.
In January, her team held a free workshop for the accommodation sector to discuss energy conservation. About 24 people attended, including representatives from big hotel chains and small bed and breakfasts.
Feedback from the session was positive, and Ho said the centre will likely hold a future workshop that examines how the accommodation sector can be more energy efficient and sustainable.
Also, the centre will probably start a "green table network" to help restaurants and other food services in Whistler hone their sustainability practices. Such a network was inspired by a similar initiative in Vancouver, said Ho.
Some people in town are concerned the centre will compete directly with local businesses, like Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners and Cascade Environmental Resource Group.
Ho said the aim of the centre in not to compete with these groups.
"We are all about collaboration," stressed Ho.
"We are willing to work with other businesses that can advance our mission, both inside and outside of Whistler."
Ho said Whistler is not the only town developing a non-profit sustainable organization; the City of Portland, Oregon, is also in the midst of launching a similar group.
"I know that financial sustainability is a big question," said Ho.
"I am confident that the sustainability centre will be financially self-sufficient at the end of three years. I know there is interest outside of Whistler for this work and expertise."
The centre's budget for 2009 is $650,000, of which $450,000 will come from the Resort Municipality of Whistler. Another $100,000 will come from a grant from B.C. Hydro to be spent within Whistler on energy sustainability initiatives.
The municipality has committed seed funding worth $120,000 a year for five years.
Ho is still preparing the centre's business plan; but she said a draft version should be ready by April 3 this year.
Before moving to Whistler, Ho worked with Smart Growth B.C. and another non-profit group in sustainability. She also worked as a science teacher for seven years.
"I was always working with students on extra curricular stuff," she said with a laugh, when asked what drove her to sustainability.
Seven people sit on the centre's board of directors: Deborah Curran from the University of Victoria, Bruce Dewar from 2010 LegaciesNow, Doug Forseth from Whistler Blackcomb, Esther Speck from Mountain Equipment Co-op, Charles Steele from Ziptrek Ecotours Inc., John O'Riordan of the University of British Columbia, and former councillor Tim Wake.
To learn more about the centre, visit www.whistlercentre.ca .