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Seed funding of $600,000 committed

No physical space for sustainability centre until after 2010

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The long-awaited Whistler Centre for Sustainability is officially off the ground with the help of a cash injection from the resort municipality.

Council has approved $120,000 annually for the next five years in seed funding to help the centre realize its dream of becoming a leading-edge, world-recognized organization in community sustainability planning, tourism sustainability and event sustainability.

It will be a virtual centre for the time being, with the potential of moving into a physical space after the 2010 Winter Games.

If its lofty vision is realized, by 2015 the centre will be in a position to influence the global sustainability agenda and will have secured its international position as a destination-learning centre, akin to the Aspen Institute.

“We have to plant the seeds today for the post-Olympic letdown, as it were,” said Mayor Ken Melamed, adding that he was tremendously excited for Whistler as it moves forward.

“I’m comfortable that we’re making the right decision.”

Not all councillors were comfortable with the decision, which will see at least $600,000 funneled into the centre over the next five years, as well as some of the proceeds from the municipal “True Local” program — a new merchandizing program that sells Whistler brand products. The municipality will also continue to pay for two staff members who are currently part of the Whistler2020 division and will now work for the centre.

Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden reluctantly withdrew her support at Monday’s council meeting. Her reason centred on the financial commitment and the fact that council is struggling with the upcoming municipal budget.

Admittedly, she recognized the value in developing all that the centre promises to develop.

“We can do all of that without the creation of an additional bureaucracy at the cost of $600,000 plus,” she said.

Though she was the only member of council to oppose the centre, others shared some of the concerns, highlighting the challenges of developing a centre in a market that is already seeing similar organizations frequently spring up.

“This is not a slam dunk, this enterprise,” said Councillor Gord McKeever, but he wished staff good luck in getting it started.

Councillor Tim Wake also said the endeavour would be challenging but was confident it would do well.

“There’s no question we’ve begun a leadership role in this and now it’s a question of maintaining that leadership role,” he said.

For Councillor Eckhard Zeidler, however, the centre marks the culmination of years of work that began when Whistler first started talking about the concept of sustainability.

After five years of talking, he was very pleased to see the centre’s foundations laid out before him in the council report.

“In addition to it being the right thing to do, this is going to put heads in beds in hotel rooms in Whistler, guarantee it,” said Zeidler, who said the initial municipal investment was money well spent.

“This is where talk begins to turn into action.”

Before the Games however, that action will be mainly focused on securing funding through grants, developing revenue generating programs, and solidifying partnerships with groups like The Natural Step Canada. It will operate at a cost of around $500,000 annually, with no net loss.

The staff report states:

“The Centre will be virtual only, in other words it won’t have a bricks and mortar home of its own until post-Games and this will only occur if the space is donated to the Centre.”

When asked to comment further on that idea, the mayor would not divulge information other than to say staff are in negotiations with “a few” groups who may want to develop a building in Whistler for the Games, much like the B.C. log house at the Torino Games in 2006, and leave it behind as a legacy to the community.

“Some of the Olympic sponsors are potentially bringing buildings to Whistler and may or may not be inclined to leave them,” said the mayor.

“We’ll be letting you know soon.”

Celebration Plaza, the development on Lot 1/9 in the village, could be the ideal central location for the centre after the Games.

In the meantime staff will continue to explore sponsorship opportunities while establishing a board of directors and hiring an executive director for the centre.

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