Category Archives: From the Archives

Behind-the-scenes insights into the inner workings of a community museum and archives.

Whistler at 22% Interest – Part 1

In the early 1980s, just as the development of Whistler Village was starting to boom, the economy bottomed out and interest rates skyrocketed. Whistler Village was left with 27 unfinished lots as owners, developers, and contractors were going bankrupt at unprecedented levels. Remembering the mess left behind as construction halted, Drew Meredith said, “Imagine standing in Village Square looking up towards Mountain Square and all you see is half finished concrete foundations with rebar sticking out of it. Rusty, dirty rebar. The stroll was there but on both sides of the stroll was just chaos. Very tough to sell that to anybody who wants to come for a holiday.”

Construction in Whistler Village halted when the economic crisis of the 1980s reached Canada leaving many lots unfinished. Eldon Beck Collection.

Canada’s inflation had accelerated throughout the 1970s, reaching over 10% in 1980. To curb inflation, the Bank of Canada raised interest rates to a peak of 21%, however inflation remained high. During this time interest rates for home loans reached 22% and Canada went into a recession. To top it off, in November 1981 the federal government ended the Multiple-Use Residential Building (MURB) program of tax credits. With multiple-use residential on the second and third floor of every building, much of Whistler Village was constructed with the understanding that MURB would provide tax incentives for investors. With the MURB program coming to an end many investors poured the foundations quickly to make use of these incentives before it was too late.

While some developments in the new Whistler Village had opened, most were just a foundation as the economic crunch really hit. Whistler had prioritised small developers in the building of the Village and many struggled to continue and could not pay their land taxes.

Aerial view of the construction in Whistler Village, December 1980. Whistler Question Collection.

The Whistler Village Land Company (WVLC) was a non-profit arm of the municipality incorporated in 1978 to oversee the sale and development of the Village. As land was sold, the WVLC would use the income to pay their liabilities, including loan repayments and development costs for municipal assets, notably the Arnold Palmer Golf Course and the Resort Centre intended to host a pool and ice rink (eventually the province dictated that the Conference Centre would be built instead). However, in the early 1980s when more lots were placed on the market they would not sell. To further financial woes, in July 1982, only 60% of taxes were paid to the municipality on time and they could charge a maximum of 10% on late payments, less than the bank’s interest rates. Between 1981 and 1982, the municipality’s capital budget was almost halved from $1 million to $650,000 and in 1982 municipal staff took a 2.5% pay cut.

With finances in dire straights, WVLC staff were let go and WVLC operations transferred to the municipality. With debts of approximately $8 million, no way to pay them, and creditors knocking, concerns were mounting that the banks would repossess assets worth far more than the loan amount. Banks could then sell these lands independently to developers, while the government would get nothing for the sale and still have to pay liabilities.

Bringing in the big guns. New Mayor Mark Angus takes Lands Minister Anthony Brummet and Assistant Deputy Lands Minister Chris Gray for a tour of the rebar with WRA Executive Director Earl Hansen in January 1983. Whistler Question Collection.

Whistler went to the provincial government for assistance. On January 6, 1983 it was announced that Whistler Land Company Developments, a new Crown corporation, had acquired the assets and liabilities of WVLC for $1. Government studies showed that all outstanding debts would be paid with future land sales and continued development would create many jobs, plus the expected revenue from tax and tourism. While there was uproar at the time about a taxpayer bailout, the provincial government went on to recoup far more than the initial investment through the land sales of Village North, and today Whistler brings in 25% of BC’s annual tourism revenue.

Looking at some of the unfinished construction in Whistler Village. Whistler Question Collection.

Hear how some of the Whistler community dealt with the economic crisis next week in Whistler at 22% Interest – Part 2.

Designing a Community

Some town centres grow organically as the population grows. Whistler was not one of those towns. Instead, Whistler was carefully planned to ensure the growth of a vibrant, happy and healthy community. If you have recently been enjoying some of the few moments of spring sun on one of Whistler’s many patios, you can thank Eldon Beck, the early council, and Whistler’s planning and project management team.

Early sketches of Whistler Village show how sunlight, views and wind direction were accounted during the planning.

The first resort municipality in BC formed in 1975, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) was an experiment that gave the RMOW far more control of the land, development and community than was typical for a municipality. When Phase 1 of the Town Centre went to development bid in 1978, the 12 parcels had strict covenants for use and planning restrictions attached. It was also divided into small parcels to ensure that local owner-developers could buy land parcels, keeping it in the community and ensuring that one large conglomerate would not and could not buy the whole village.

A community is not complete without local people, and much research went into how best to encourage residents and visitors alike into the Village and make sure the centre of town was full of life. According to Jim Moodie, from the project management team of Sutcliffe, Griggs and Moodie, who were tasked with preparing the development plan for the Town Centre, “We didn’t want a whole strip of T-shirt shops”. The location of the grocery store, drug store, hardware store and liquor store were carefully placed to ensure local residents had a purpose for going into the Village. They can still be found in their original location. Additionally, Tapley’s Pub opened in it’s current location in January 1981. As the first pub in the Town Centre, it was important to open Tapley’s Pub early in the development process to ensure that the construction workers had somewhere to go that would encourage them to stay in the Village during their leisure time.

Tapley’s Pub in May 1980 as the roof is going on. Still the early days of Whistler Village with very few buildings. Whistler Question Collection.

To further ensure there would be enough people to support the businesses, mixed-use rental and residential housing was required to be built over most of the commercial premises. In planning, building height and roof angle were specified to maximise the natural sunlight, and patio locations were carefully laid out. Unsurprisingly, this level of control and direction was not popular with some developers who, throughout the construction of all phases of the Village, tried to be the exception – offering more money to get an exemption from building residential rooms, underground parking, or to keep their outdoor patio closed. However the covenants for each build were clearly and carefully laid out from the beginning, leaving little room for interpretation, and each completed stage of Whistler Village is very similar to the final plans, even down to how people walk through the Village stroll.

When Eldon Beck designed the Village it was to feel connected to nature, with the stroll set out to create a natural flow of people, encouraging people to slow down and spend time with one another. Similar to a meandering river, where the Village stroll gets wider you often see people slow down and gather as they stop to talk to friends or take in their surroundings, exactly as the planners hoped.

Whistler Village under construction, November 1979. The copper beams of Tapley’s Pub can be seen in the middle left.  Hearthstone Lodge and Blackcomb Lodge are also under construction. The first completed building in the Village was the Public Service Building top right, and the old Myrtle Philip School is on the top left. During the construction of the Village the near-constant noise of the pile driver could be heard in White Gold. Whistler Question Collection.

As Whistler ticked into the 1980s the Village was coming along nicely with the development of Phase 1 well underway, however, there were economic clouds on the horizon. Soon the Canadian economy would tank, sky rocketing interest rates over 20% and temporarily halting the formerly-booming development, creating new challenges for the fledgling Whistler Village.

Getting into Gear: Have Bike, Will Ride

Like much of the Whistler community, we have the Whistler Mountain Bike Park on our minds. When talking about the history of the bike park we often hear that mountain bike design and rider ability had to catch up before the bike park could take off. Thanks to generous funding from 100 Women of Whistler, and the local community who have been generous with their time, we have heard some great reflections on that recently through oral histories.

An unidentified rider heads down Blackcomb Mountain in the late 1980s or early 1990s, cut-off jeans the only armour required. Blackcomb Mountain Collection.

Not interested in road biking, Jim Kennedy, preferably Jimbo, was inspired to buy a mountain bike after watching the ET movie where they ride through the forest. Purchasing one of the first bikes when Doris Burma opened the door to Summit Cycles in 1983, Jim was the proud new owner of a $500 Nishiki Bushwacker. Not everyone was thrilled with his purchase, however. Mountain biker riders regularly copped abuse in the Village in regards to their choice of transport, as expletive laced “get a real bike” rang out.

In the mid-1980s, long before the bike park opened, Jimbo and friends were taking their bikes up the gondola to mid-station to ride down as part of a stag party. Luckily for them, a friend was working at mid-station, and with much encouragement let them stay on until the top of the mountain. A group filled with many former downhill racers, the ride was fast, wild and they didn’t see a single other person. Starting on snow and then following Jolly Green Giant, Jimbo remembers, “We were on these bikes, just handbrakes, no shocks or anything like that. By the time you got down your hands were just seized.” Additionally the rim brakes could get so hot they would burn or cause the tires to blow. So to ride more comfortably the bike technology had to catch up.

A few years later, the Kamikaze Descent down from the top of Blackcomb as part of Labatt’s Can-Am Challenge in 1989 followed the 15 km service road down the mountain, still no features involved. When Backroads Mountain Bike Adventures started to offer commercial downhill tours on Whistler Mountain many of the trails ridden were still the gravel access roads dotting the mountain, although Eric Wight and other passionate individuals had started to build some mountain bike specific trails across the mountains.  

Mountain bike riders cruising down Blackcomb. The marketing photos for on-mountain riding adventures have also changed in the last 30 years. Blackcomb Mountain Collection.

The opening day of the bike park in 1996 saw 500 keen riders take to the lifts. Then when Intrawest took over Whistler Blackcomb in 1998 they were convinced, with much lobbying, to further invest in the bike park. However rider ability and gear still had some catching up to do. After the first staff demo day an employee from Guest Relations remarked, “After trying the trails I couldn’t believe some of the people who had been getting on the lifts, even the greens are much harder than we were led to believe. We warn people that they need enclosed, appropriate footwear and I’ve seen people in slip-on flats go up, completely unprepared for what they are about to do.” Today it is recommended that every rider has a full face helmet, gloves, armour and a full suspension downhill bike.  

Some things change while others stay the same. A commonly heard adage in the 1990s was “You can tell if someone is a Whistler local because their bike is worth more than their car.” In many cases this still rings true today.

You wouldn’t want to crash in these outfits. Part of the Whistler Question Collection from 1992 this photo was captioned ‘All the nudes that’s fit to print: Whistler’s newest acapella group bares their wares.’ We’ve seen enough, but we want to know more. Whistler Question Collection.

The Canada Jay: Good company for men in lonely places

While it is easy to point out the changes to Whistler throughout time, one thing that has remained constant on the mountains is the friendly birds up the top. It is common to hear exclamations of delight in the lift lines of Harmony, Symphony or 7th Heaven as Canada Jays fly from ski pole to helmet, looking for an easy lunch.

The Canada Jay, seen here on Whistler Mountain around 1969, has captured hearts throughout time. Many would agree with the Canadian Wildlife Service, “Without the Gray Jay with its soft wingbeats, its sudden appearances out of the dark green backdrop, the austere northern forests would lose much enchantment and character.” Cliff Fenner Collection.

The Hinterland Who’s Who published by the Canadian Wildlife Service in 1973 phrases it beautifully, “Among birds, the Gray Jay has intelligence and graces that set it apart. We, who are not accustomed to being approached by any wild creature without fear and anger, are charmed by its easy audacity and prompt to forgive its sins.”

Before lift lines and backcountry campgrounds were the places to be, the Canada Jay would join lumber camps, hunters and farmers waiting to “gorge upon warm entrails” of whatever meat was being prepared for dinner. When humans are not butchering the food, Canada Jays can do it themselves, catching small mammals, birds, amphibians and insects, and chasing birds from their nests to get the eggs. They are omnivorous and will also feed on berries, needles and buds from trees.

To survive alpine winters the Canada Jay caches food when it is abundant. The food is covered in saliva in the mouth and then the sticky saliva balls are stored in trees for later. One study found that a single Canada Jay can store and retrieve thousands of pieces of food annually. However, it is suggested that a warming climate especially during fall may cause these perishable food stores to spoil, threatening the reproduction of the Canada Jay. One study specifically found that a higher number of freeze-thaw events in fall correlated to fewer and weaker offspring as there was not enough food to both survive and reproduce.

The Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) was officially recognised as the Gray Jay between 1957 and 2018, and is also commonly called the Whisky Jack. Depending on ones affection for the sneaky birds they may be known as ‘camp robber’, ‘venison hawk’ or ‘grease bird’, alluding to the jay’s fondness for meat and petty thievery. To prevent confusion stemming from multiple common names, scientific binomial names assign each species a unique two word identifier so they can be recognised globally. The first word being the genus name (Perisoreus) and the second is the species name (canadensis).

The Canada Jay, still capturing hearts in 2022.

Until recently it was thought that birds could only change their feather colour when they moult. Adding to confusion while classifying and identifying this species, the Canada Jay appears to be an exception to this rule, becoming browner throughout the year until they moult back to a fresh grey coat in May/June. It also appears that preserved specimens may continue to lose their grey colour, becoming browner throughout time in museum collections. This colour change tricked taxonomists into originally identifying Canada Jays as multiple species.

The 1941 Field Guide to Western Birds in the museum library contains separate descriptions of the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) and Oregon Jay (Perisoreus obscurus). With advances in identification and classification, including DNA technology, we now know they are a single species. Luckily Margaret Mackenzie, the owner of the field guide, had ticked them both off as identified anyway.

Regardless of what you call them, the love for these birds is widespread. “Trusting and easily tamed, the Gray Jay is good company for men in lonely places.” They just do not write governmental scientific publications like they used to.