Tag Archives: Chester Johnson

Grand Plans for Whistler Resort Centre

Walking through Olympic Plaza in the winter, chances are you’ll see some people out skating on the ice.  Plans for an ice rink in Whistler Village date back to the 1980s, though the original plans looked a lot different than the rink you see today.

In March 1980 construction began on the Whistler Village Resort/Recreation Centre.  According to a write up in Whistler News, Summer 1980, the Resort Centre would be a “three-level, multi-purpose, indoor recreation and conference centre” or approximately 72,000 square feet (the Whistler Conference Centre today is somewhere over 40,000 square feet).  The proposed budget for the project was in the $5.5 to 5.8 million range with funding provided by the Province of British Columbia in the form of a TIDSA (Travel Industry Development Subsidiary Agreement), the Recreation Facility Assistance and the Whistler Village Land Company.  This budget did not include operating costs.

What could have been: An artist’s rendering of the proposed Whistler Resort Centre, 1980. Whistler Question Collection.

The list of anticipated recreation activities that would have been housed in the Resort Centre is extensive.  Plans included a 20,000 sq. ft. Olympic-sized ice rink, a 3 x 20 metre swimming pool, a whirlpool, saunas, four racquetball courts, a squash court, locker room facilities, the Golf Pro Shop for the Whistler Golf Course, and even a restaurant.

Located on the top floor, the restaurant and lounge area would seat 320 people and “provide guests with views of the ice-skating and swimming activities as well as the surrounding mountain landscape.”

The plans for the lower level of the Resort Centre. Whistler Question Collection.

Many of the proposed facilities were multi-use.  A system of interlocking insulated panels meant that in just under four hours the ice rink could be transformed to either carpeting or astroturf to host banquets, staged performances, tennis matches or basketball games.  The Golf Pro Shop would be transformed in the winter months into a cross-country skiing centre.

When a recession hit North America and Whistler in late 1981 the Resort Centre, like much of the Village, was still under construction.  With the economy failing, real estate sales falling and interest rates climbing above 20%, the Whistler Village Land Company found themselves with debts of almost $8 million, liabilities coming to $30 million, and assets in the form of land that nobody wanted to buy.

The Resort Centre under construction, along with the rest of the Whistler Village. Eldon Beck Collection.

In January 1983 the provincial government under Premier Bill Bennett stepped in and formed Whistler Land Co. Developments, a Crown corporation to take over the liabilities and assets of the Whistler Village Land Company.  Chester Johnson, a Vancouver businessman, was chosen by Bennett to chair the board of this new Crown corporation and take over the development of Whistler Village.

Before the building could be reconstructed some of it had to be deconstructed. Whistler Question Collection, 1984.

One of the decisions made by Johnson was to reconstruct the Resort Centre as a conference centre without all of the extra recreational facilities.  A convention business consultant and a Los Angeles architectural company were brought in to convert the Whistler Village Resort/Recreation Centre to the Whistler Conference Centre, a year-round facility meant to attract conventions and visitors to the resort.  Work was well underway on the Whistler Conference Centre by the end of 1984 and was completed by 1986, with no ice rink in sight.  Whistler wouldn’t get an indoor ice rink until 1993 with the opening of the arena at the Meadow Park Sports Centre.

“Last person leaving Whistler, please turn out the lights.”

Spring in Whistler is so full of distractions (skiing, biking, golfing, climbing, WSSF, Dine In Whistler…) you might be excused if you hadn’t noticed that a provincial election campaign is well underway.

Regardless of your level of awareness, the election is happening May 14th, and it matters. Want proof? Well if it weren’t for some very heavy involvement by our provincial government three decades ago, Whistler as we know it simply would not exist.

By 1980 the highway from Vancouver had finally been paved, the RMOW had been formed, Blackcomb Mountain was shaking up the ski scene, and construction was well underway turning Eldon Beck’s vision for Whistler Village into reality.

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But what should have been a time to rejoice was quickly turning into a nightmare scenario.

A major recession hit North America in late 1981. The economy was failing, real estate sales plummetted, interest rates were in the %20-%25 range, and the Whistler Village Land Company (the provincial crown corporation set up to oversee the development of Whistler Village) was on the verge of bankruptcy. As long-time Whistlerite and ski-resort-management guru Peter Alder recalls, the mood was so pessimistic that a common catchphrase around town was “Last person leaving Whistler, please turn out the lights.”

At this point construction was very much  underway on the original village plan (which spans from Skier’s Plaza to the pedestrian bridge over Village Gate boulevard), but several buildings remained in varying states of construction:  exposed re-bar, concrete foundations, and boarded-up windows were everywhere. There was a serious risk that the original design for the village would be abandoned, undeveloped lots would be sold off to recover debts, and these properties would then be developed without any over-arching design.

Thankfully, the provincial government, then led by Bill Bennett Jr.’s Social Credit Party, began investigations to see whether saving Whistler was even worthwhile. Satisfied that Whistler wasn’t a lost cause, accomplished and well-connected BC businessman Chester Johnson was put in charge of a restructured Whistler Land Company, with $21 million of provincial funds to kickstart the reboot.

Mr. Johnson’s determined leadership was just what the doctor ordered. He oversaw the reconstruction of the conference centre so that it better suited the resort’s needs, fought off calls to bring in a casino, while respecting the architectural sensibilities of the original Whistler Village design. By 1984 some normalcy was returning to the situation, and Whistler was once again set upon a successful bearing.

It’s hard to say what exactly would have happened had the BC government chosen not to intervene (a politically expedient decision at the time; recall the wide-ranging calls for austerity following the 2008 recession) is impossible to predict, but it was clear at the time, and perhaps even moreso in hindsight, that the decision would have a huge influence on Whistler’s future.

All that to say: those who think that provincial politics  have no impact inside our cozy little Whistler bubbles… you’re wrong. There are many more examples than the above story, but probably none so dramatic.

From bitumen pipelines, natural gas plants, and IPP hydro facilities, to tourism promotion, post-secondary education, healthcare funding, our rising deficit, arts & culture and more, there are many contentious issues at play in the upcoming election. Make sure to come out to Monday’s all-candidates meeting at the Whistler Public Library, where you’ll have a chance to ask pointed questions and get informed on the issues that matter most to you.

Then make sure you’re registered, and show up to vote on May 14th at the Whistler Conference Center, courtesy of Chester Johnson.

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For more stories from Whistler’s past check the Whistler Museum’s blog!