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Lessons for Whistler's aspiring councillors

Or: How to build a community through collaboration and sacrifice

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It's a story she's told many times over the years.

In 1984, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden was a young lawyer with an interest in her community going back to its incorporation a decade earlier.

"The council of the day had decided that they were going to charge a fee for cross-country ski trails at Lost Lake, and I disagreed with that. I thought that was dumb. So I ran," Wilhelm-Morden says.

While she had an extensive platform, one of her planks was keeping Lost Lake free of fees.

"The pundits didn't think I would get elected, because I was very young and didn't have any political experience. I did get elected... but I lost the argument," she recalls with a laugh.

Though fees for cross-country skiing at Lost Lake Park were initiated, it was perhaps an early lesson in governance for Wilhelm-Morden, at the outset of what became a trailblazing, remarkable career in Whistler politics (and for our purposes, let's refer to it for now as Lesson No.1 for aspiring councillors: You Can't Win 'Em All).

Over 17 years in office, Wilhelm-Morden has been witness to—and guided—a lot of change locally.

But with the incumbent mayor set to step aside, and 20 brave souls stepping forward to run for council on Oct. 20, many are left wondering what comes next.

Indeed, whoever forms the next council—with acclaimed mayor Jack Crompton at the helm—has their work cut out for them, with any number of issues to be addressed immediately: An ongoing lack of affordable housing has led to a shortage of staff, while visitor numbers are higher than ever before. The valley's natural areas are feeling the pressure as the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) works towards updating its Official Community Plan.

No matter the topic of the day, all of it eventually leads back to the overarching question of growth: How much is enough? How do we handle what we're experiencing now? And how do we best prepare for the inevitable slowdown?

Whistler is a unique place with an equally unique history, and lately the sentiment seems to be that as a community, we're at a crossroads.

How has municipal government historically guided the key issues in Whistler?

And where will our fearless leaders take us next?

Early decisions

Al Raine wasn't elected to Whistler's first council. Rather, he was the province's appointed council member.

It was 1975, and there were some big decisions to be made.

What was it like sitting on a fresh government with a clean slate ahead of it? Where do you possibly begin?

"Well, as soon as you say that, I have this recollection of the elected council and I sitting over in (Whistler's first mayor) Pat Carleton's house, in his living room, saying, 'We're a municipality; where do we go from here?'" Raine says with a laugh.

There was no staff, no office, and no zoning in place.

Early discussions included whether or not the newly formed RMOW needed a fulltime municipal clerk (eventually someone was hired one day a week on a contract basis, along with a building inspector).

"It was, looking back, probably a little bit naive, but it didn't take long; I would say it was within six months we were kinda up and operating, and we were looking for a fulltime CAO, and we were underway," Raine says.

"But those were good days. I mean, there was a lot going on, and setting the right direction was important."

Until the RMOW was formed, Whistler was governed by the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD).

"They (SLRD leaders) were interested in Whistler but they didn't really know Whistler well, and they didn't have a big vision for Whistler's future," Raine says.

"So you had the regional district making very, very important decisions and the local people not overly involved."

That changed with the formation of the RMOW, and as the town's first elected officials discussed plans for what would become Whistler Village, local residents were eager to learn more at well-attended public info sessions.

"We had one in the Whistler gondola base there, and the room was almost full. There was well over 100 people there," Raine says.

"People were really interested, because the strategic direction for Whistler was on the table."

(Some things never change, and that leads us to Lesson No. 2: Engage Your Community.)

One of the initial, enormous tasks of the town's first decision makers was finding the perfect spot for Whistler Village, with "several major landowners" lobbying for it to be built on their land, says Raine.

Some argued the village should be built near a lake to draw visitors in the summer as well as winter.

"We wrestled with it, saying the problem is, in the winter time, everybody wants to go to the lifts in the same two-and-a-half, three-hour period. If you have all the beds over at the lakes, you're going to need a four-lane highway to get people to the lifts, and you have massive, big parking lots over there to assist," Raine says.

Sensing the potential future congestion nightmares, the council opted to place the village at the mountains (and on top of a garbage dump).

"And that was a big kind of strategic planning decision: Is it going to be at the mountain or is it going to be at the lakes? And we felt it was easier to move people in the summer time to the lakes, because they're going to go over a 12-hour period, not all doing the same thing in two and a half hours."

While not everyone saw it the same way, early pioneers like Raine and Garry Watson knew that Whistler could be much more than a weekend recreational community.

"I think Garry Watson and I both were firm, firm believers that Whistler had a lot more potential than the direction we were going, and that we did need a village with hotel rooms and a village with commercial space, and if we built the right facility, we could easily be the leading mountain resort in Canada," Raine says, recalling how one local landowner once called the provincial minister to tell him Raine and the rest of council were dreaming, their vision an impossibility.

"I had to say to him, 'Look, I can't guarantee that we will become the leading mountain resort in North America, but I am certain that if we build a pedestrian village that has a broad range of tourist services, there is no question we will be the outstanding resort in the Pacific Northwest,'" Raine says.

In part thanks to some shrewd planning in Whistler's earliest days, the resort has morphed into something beyond even that.

"When I'm in Whistler today, I often kinda pinch myself, because I think I would say a large number of people thought the vision that Garry Watson and I shared was completely nutty," Raine says.

"And yet, today, when I look at Whistler, it's beyond the vision I think that we shared at that time."

Napkin numbers

Another big decision of that first council was to institute a bed-unit cap as a means to manage the future growth of Whistler.

While the cap's formula has evolved over the decades, and the cap has since been raised to almost double its original ceiling of 36,000, the idea itself comes from humble beginnings.

"A little bit on a restaurant napkin, and just kind of thinking about the numbers going up the mountain," Raine says with a laugh.

Whistler's early decision-makers saw no competition from nearby resorts, and wanted to ensure the inevitable development pressure could be mitigated.

But the number itself was derived from the mountains.

"We had calculations for the comfortable skiing capacity on Whistler and Blackcomb, and that drove the number, because we said, 'Well, one thing we shouldn't have is more beds there than there is skier capacity, because that would lead to the problem of just too many people on the mountain, and that would (then) ruin the quality of the experience," Raine says.

"So the starting point for all of that planning was the comfortable skiing capacity of both mountains."

Advances in ski-lift technology would soon render those original estimates irrelevant, and, helped along by other factors, the cap evolved over time (which ties in to Lesson No. 3: Be Flexible, Be Pragmatic).

"The bed-unit and bed-cap concepts are things that have been held near and dear to local community members' hearts since the very beginning," Wilhelm-Morden says, adding that it has seen some significant jumps over the years, including once in the late '80s when there was a push to make Whistler a four-season resort.

"There was a callout for proposals for various landowners to come in and tell us what they would do if they got permission, if they got rezoning ... The Nicklaus North Golf Course came in; the Bjorn Borg Tennis Resort complex came in; there was something that looked like a spaceship (at Edgewater) ... I'm not quite sure what it was supposed to be," Wilhelm-Morden says with a laugh.

While Nick North and the tennis club were approved, each receiving brand new bed units, the spaceship concept was sadly left unlaunched.

Council also raised the cap at one point because, for a long time, employee housing was not counted towards it.

"I don't know how we managed to think that one through, because a bed unit is a bed unit is a bed unit, but when we brought the employee bed units in under the cap, of course that meant the cap grew," Wilhelm-Morden says.

But as Whistler approaches buildout—just 10 per cent of the 61,513 bed units remain undeveloped—Wilhelm-Morden doesn't see the cap being raised further.

"I don't think that will happen," she says.

"I think there is a recognition that we can't build ourselves out of the housing issue, and that's why the Mayor's Task Force on Housing recommendations had other recommendations that didn't have to do with continuing to build, because we do appreciate that this valley that we're in really represents the golden egg, and we just don't want to lose that.

"We don't want to kill that goose."

Whistler's next council—and those that come after it—will be tasked with preserving all that's been built so far, but thankfully they won't be starting from scratch.

"That's going to be a continuing challenge, and you know, quite frankly, I've been here for a long, long time, and I think we've done a pretty good job," Wilhelm-Morden says.

"If we take things slowly, if we don't raise the cap until we're close to it, and then only for very, very good reasons, we can, I think, maintain what we have here."

If you build it ...

Hugh O'Reilly's first successful council bid in 1988 was helped along by his professional life.

"I knew everybody in town because of my chimney-sweep business, because once a year I was at their house and chatting with them, so it was actually a great time to run ... I got a great opportunity to knock on doors and actually get paid for it," O'Reilly says with a laugh from his home in Hawaii.

From humble beginnings, O'Reilly would go on to become Whistler's most prolific elected official, serving as councillor from '88 to '96 and as mayor from '96 to 2005.

His 6,216 days in office make him the longest serving elected official in Whistler's history (Wilhelm-Morden's combined six terms will put her in second place at 6,181 days when the next council is sworn in on Nov. 6).

The first lessons came quickly for O'Reilly.

"I got a real education, because as soon as I got on council, (Mayor) Ted Nebbeling, the first thing he did was make me representative to AWARE (the Association for Whistler Area Residents for the Environment)," O'Reilly recalls.

"I'd go to the meetings and they'd beat me up for an hour or two every month, and say 'Why are you doing this? Why aren't you doing that?'"

(Lesson No. 4 is an important one: Develop a Thick Skin)

Despite his lengthy stretch in office, O'Reilly said the main issues, in Whistler or indeed any resort in the world, can be boiled down to finding a balance between growing the tourism economy and looking after locals.

Over his time in office, O'Reilly helped form a united front for tourism through the Resort Community Collaborative—which eventually paved the way for the provincial Resort Municipality Initiative program—and oversaw the formation of the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA).

At the time, the RMOW had about $2 million in the bank from the employee-housing surcharge paid by developers, O'Reilly recalls.

"It's unfortunate we didn't buy more land when it was more affordable, but at the time I became mayor, we created the WHA and started to use that fund," he says.

The success of the WHA has been well documented since then.

Whistler's community goal of housing at least 75 per cent of the workforce within municipal boundaries has been met for more than a decade, says WHA general manager Marla Zucht.

"The WHA would not be where it is today without the support and vision of council over the past 21 years and their ability to plan for the future and capitalize on opportunities for collaboration and innovation as they come available," she says.

"We have been very fortunate in Whistler to have always had the political will and strong support to forge ahead with addressing our employee-housing challenges."

Whistler's next councils can ensure the model stays effective "by continuing to build a range of types of housing for the workforce, with occupancy and affordability restrictions that remain on the properties in perpetuity," Zucht adds.

Ask any election candidate, or any voter, what the top issue is in this election, and you'll likely get the same answer across the board.

Housing is always a hot topic in the community, election season or not.

"I mean in the mid '70s, (husband) Ted and I lived in the middle of Brio—what's now Brio—for four years when we were squatters, and the reason we did that was because it was difficult to find a place to live," Wilhelm-Morden says.

"We moved around. Landlords were really tough as far as, you know, you could live in a place for the summer but then the rents would double for the winter, and it was always really difficult to find a place."

In those days, the mayor says, about 10 per cent of the permanent population (60 people) was squatters.

Wilhelm-Morden has been a part of the local process for some time, and was on the council with O'Reilly that launched the WHA in 1997.

"We formed the WHA, and set goals for it, funded it ... and we've been building ever since, and, of course, refining criteria and doing other things over the years," she said.

"I think Whistler—although we do have a housing crunch right now, and the Mayor's Task Force on Housing was formed two years ago to specifically deal with it—in comparison with some other towns and cities, we are way ahead of the game."

The Task Force, with its target of 1,000 beds over five years, has positioned Whistler's next council well to deal with the town's seemingly-never-ending housing challenges.

But it won't be easy—and you can lose friends along the way.

"I used to tell the council members, 'There are projects you have to take a bullet for—you have to be willing to stand up to it,'" O'Reilly says, recalling the forceful opposition to developing 19 Mile Creek in the late '90s.

"(It) was absolutely one of the most controversial projects brought before council. It had failed at least twice previously, and the third time, when we finally approved it, I can tell you, I had friends, and these are good friends, who didn't talk to me for a couple of years. They were so angry that we did that project," O'Reilly says.

"And I said to council, you know, this one, you've got to take a bullet. This is a good project, it's appropriate, and located right."

(Lesson No. 5: When Necessary, Take A Bullet.)

A balancing act

When the conversation shifts to tourism, there's one phrase Wilhelm-Morden has struck from her vocabulary.

"I'm not saying it," she says, before even being asked a question.

"BBDTs? No, it's not coming out of my mouth."

The now-infamous acronym stands for Brown Bagging Day Trippers, so coined after Wilhelm-Morden discussed the resort's desire to attract long-term visitors rather than day trippers from the Lower Mainland in an interview with the CBC last October.

The mayor was blasted online, both in Whistler and beyond, for how her poorly worded message came across in the media (while she's able to laugh about it now, Wilhelm-Morden's BBDT experience leads us to Lesson No. 6: Always Speak Thoughtfully—But Never Be Afraid to Speak).

Criticisms aside, there's no denying Wilhelm-Morden has overseen the wildest economic growth in the resort's history, thanks in part to shifting external factors and a keen eye for community collaboration.

One of her first actions as mayor was to form the Economic Partnership Initiative (EPI), made up of reps from the RMOW, Tourism Whistler, Whistler Blackcomb, the Whistler Chamber of Commerce and the hotel association, with a stated purpose of examining what drives the Whistler economy.

Rather than add to the economy through diversification, the EPI decided to deliver on Whistler's core mission of being a world-class, four-season destination resort.

"By focusing on the destination visitor, by bringing in a policy to govern the expenditure of the Festivals, Events and Animation program, by encouraging marketing to those groups we wanted to see come here in larger numbers, we were able to spur the economy on," Wilhelm-Morden says.

But anyone who's lived here long enough will tell you with certainty that the good times can't, and won't, last forever.

"We've had 45 years of seeing it go up and down, and there's not a whole lot we can do to prevent a downturn," Wilhelm-Morden says.

"But we do have to continue to improve the product. We have to work with the chamber of commerce and the other business owners in town to ensure that service levels remain high.

"We don't want to give an excuse for people not to come here if the economy has a downturn."

When Whistler's next council takes office, the word of the day could very well be "balance."

"I think it's really important to have balance," says Tourism Whistler president and CEO Barrett Fisher.

"I think councillors have a responsibility to ensure that we have a healthy, vibrant and safe community ... and that needs to be balanced with ensuring that we also have a healthy tourism economy."

In the past, Whistler has been victim to the natural highs and lows, or "extremes," of the economy, Fisher says, contrasting the peaks of today with the valleys of 2011, when Whistler was suffering from both a global economic recession and a post-Olympic slump.

"I'd say that both of those are extremes, and what we have to do is find the balance. We need to preserve and protect a healthy, sustainable year-round economy," she says.

"I think what I would like to see is a council that is big-picture thinking and looks to the future ... I think we absolutely have to solve the challenges and issues of today, but not in isolation of what the challenges and issues of tomorrow might be."

And to do that, Fisher provides us with Lesson No. 7: Create Solutions Collaboratively.

"We all do it, but it's easy to point at the problem," Fisher says.

"It takes a lot more guts and a lot more initiative and a lot more responsibility to be part of the solution, to dig in and to find solutions and to do that in a collaborative way to ensure that we're all rowing in the same direction."

Anything else?

Through a 30-minute-plus interview, Wilhelm-Morden is her usual professional self, sharing her insights from nearly two decades in office making decisions on behalf of the public.

Her insights, and those of every other elected official to dedicate their time to Whistler, are invaluable to our current and future decision-makers (so with that, we will leave you with Lesson No. 8: Do Your Homework, Know Your History, and Listen To Your Elders).

At the end of every interview, Pique always asks Wilhelm-Morden if there's anything else she'd like to add.

Almost 100 per cent of the time, her answer is verbatim: "No, I don't think so."

So is there anything else she'd like to say?

"Well, no, other than the obvious—that it's just been a huge honour..." (her voice cracking) "... and now, here we go. I knew you'd make me do this," she says with a laugh.

"But no. It's been, really, an experience of a lifetime, and a huge honour."

 

Who is Whistler's longest-serving elected official? A Pique investigation.

When Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden announced in May that she would not be seeking re-election this month, she mentioned in an interview with Pique that she would be Whistler,s longest-serving elected official by the time she,s done.

But a review of relevant dates showed the matter to be more complicated than that.

Serving from ,88 to ,05, Hugh O,Reilly was in office for 6,209 days; from his swearing-in on Dec. 6, 1988 to the swearing-in of council on Dec. 5, 2005)

Wilhelm-Morden,s tenure was trickier to track.

While the Resort Municipality of Whistler was at first willing to provide the names and tenures of past councils, to find the actual swearing-in dates, Pique had to dig deep into the archives of now-defunct sister paper the Whistler Question.

Tracking all of Wilhelm-Morden,s swearing-in dates, from ,84 to ,86, ,88 to ,90, ,96 to ,99, ,05 to ,08 and ,11 to ,18, Pique tallied 6,184 days with Wilhelm-Morden at the table.

It was close, but O,Reilly had Wilhelm-Morden beat by 25 days.

Asked to confirm Pique,s findings, the RMOW dug into the minutes from relevant council meetings and came up with slightly different numbers, but the same end result.

With 6,216 days in office to Wilhelm-Morden,s 6,181, O,Reilly is Whistler's longest-serving elected official by 35 days.

 

Council history

September 1975 -December 31, 1976

M. Pat Carleton

A. Bob Bishop

A. John Hetherington

A. Al Raine

A. Garry Watson

January 1977 - November 1978

M. Pat Carleton

A. Frans Carpay

A. John Hetherington

A. Al Raine

A. Garry Watson

December 1978 - November 1980

M. Pat Carleton

A. Rolly Horsey

A. Al Raine

A. Sid Young

A. Garry Watson

December 1980 - January 1982

M. Pat Carleton

A. Mark Angus

A. Doug O'Mara

A. Al Raine

A. Sid Young

December 1982 - December 1984

M. Mark Angus

A. Bernie Hauschka

A. David O'Keefe

A. Bill Peterson

A. Terry Rodgers

December 1984 - December 1986

M. Terry Rodgers

A. Paul Burrows

A. Diane Eby

A. Doug Fox

A. Ted Nebbeling

A. Nancy Wilhelm-Morden

December 1986 - December 1988

M. Drew Meredith

A. Paul Burrows

A. Diane Eby

A. Craig MacKenzie

A. Sonya McCarthy

A. Ted Nebbeling

December 1988 - December 1990

M. Drew Meredith

A. Paul Burrows (resigned November 1989)

A. Thelma Johnstone

A. Ted Nebbeling

A. Hugh O'Reilly

A. Terry Rodgers

A. Gordon Tomalty (elected February 1990)

A. Nancy Wilhelm-Morden

December 1990 - December 1993

M. Ted Nebbeling

A. Thelma Johnstone

A. David Kirk

A. Bill Murray

A. Hugh O'Reilly

A. Terry Rodgers

A. Gordon Tomalty

December 1993 - December 1996

M. Ted Nebbeling

C. Thelma Johnstone

C. David Kirk

C. Max Kirkpatrick

C. Bill Murray

C. Hugh O'Reilly

C. Kristi Wells

December 1996 - December 1999

M. Hugh O'Reilly

C. David Kirk

C. Ken Melamed

C. Ted Milner

C. Stephanie Sloan

C. Kristi Wells

C. Nancy Wilhelm-Morden

December 1999 - December 2002

M. Hugh O'Reilly

C. Nicholas Davies

C. David Martin Kirk

C. Ken Melamed

C. Ted Milner

C. Stephanie Sloan

C. Kristi Wells

December 2002 - December 2005

M. Hugh O'Reilly

C. Caroline Lamont

C. Nicholas Davies

C. Gordon McKeever

C. Ken Melamed

C Marianne Wade

C. Kristi Wells

December 2005 - December 2008

M. Ken Melamed

C. Ralph Forsyth

C. Bob Lorriman

C. Gordon McKeever

C. Tim Wake

C. Nancy Wilhelm-Morden

C. Eckhard Zeidler

December 2008 - December 2011

M. Ken Melamed

C. Ralph Forsyth

C. Grant Lamont

C. Ted Milner

C. Christopher Quinlan

C. Tom Thomson

C. Eckhard Zeidler

December 2011 - December 2014

M. Nancy Wilhelm-Morden

C. Jack Crompton

C. Jayson Faulkner

C. John Grills

C. Duane Jackson

C. Andrée Janyk

C. Roger McCarthy

December 2014 - December 2017

M. Nancy Wilhelm-Morden

C. Steve Anderson

C. Jack Crompton

C. Jen Ford

C. John Grills

C. Andrée Janyk

C. Sue Maxwell

October 2017 - December 2018

M. Nancy Wilhelm-Morden

C. Steve Anderson

C. Jack Crompton

C. Jen Ford

C. John Grills

C. Cathy Jewett

C. Sue Maxwell

December 2018 -

M. Jack Crompton

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