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Whistler learns from Aspen Institute



William Roberts wants to reawaken dialogue in the resort

There was once a derelict ghost town nestled at the base of some spectacular snow-capped mountains.

It only took the dream of one wealthy businessman and his sophisticated wife to see that ghost town transformed into a place that nurtured the mind, the body and the spirit - the so-called perfect town.

It was called Aspen.

To that end the Aspen Skiing Company was formed for the body, the Aspen Music Festival for the spirit and the Aspen Institute for the mind.

Borrowing from the brilliant success of the Aspen Institute, a world-renowned organization dedicated to informed dialogue and inquiry on global issues, Whistler has begun to mimic the basic principles of the Institute, offering a place where people can expand the horizons of their mind.

It's called the Whistler Forum.

"As we develop the Whistler Forum, we want it to be rooted in local issues with local people and local concerns, at the same time as blending that with concern for... and knowledge about, what's going on at the global level," said William Roberts, who has spearheaded this initiative.

"In some ways I see the difference from Aspen is that they started more globally and then worked it down to how it would fit into the community and we sort of want to go the other direction."

Amy Margerum, executive vice president, administration and finance of the Aspen Institute, was in Whistler last week to share the story of the non-profit organization and offer advise for the Whistler initiative.

More than 50 years ago Chicago businessman Walter Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth saw the potential deep in the Colorado mountains in a place once called the Salzburg of the Rockies.

"This was right after the war and they felt that people had lost touch with the community and what was important globally... and in particular they felt that businessmen, corporate leaders in the United States, needed to play a much larger role in societal concerns," she said.

World leaders, poets and musicians all congregated to talk about what's going on in the world amid the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.

"People felt like this was so powerful that they wanted to continue it and that was really the birth of the Aspen Institute," she added.

Now it operates on a $40 million (US) budget and roughly 5,000 people take part in the programs every year. The Aspen Institute, and some of its spin-off non-profit organizations, is one of the key reasons Aspen is so busy in the summer season, pumping up the resort economy.

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