Tag Archives: Whistler Village

What is the WRA?

In late August 1979, the government of British Columbia introduced an amendment to the Resort Municipality of Whistler Act (the legislation that established Whistler as a municipality in 1975) that would allow for the creation of a resort association. According to section 14.1 of the Act, the purpose of such an association would be “to promote, facilitate and encourage the development, maintenance and operation of the resort land.” Due to this legislation, the Whistler Resort Association (WRA) began operations in 1980.

There were no other resort associations in British Columbia at the time, though several examples could be found in American resorts such as Sun Valley, Aspen, and Vail. In their October 19779 newsletter, the Whistler Village Land Company (WVLC) wrote that “The concept of a destination resort and of a resort association are both new to Canada, and that is perhaps why some misunderstandings have arisen.” Though they did not detail what kind of misunderstandings had occurred, the WVLC did go on to provide and explanation of the purpose and structure of the WRA.

Land Company President Terry Minger delivers a presentation to Whistler Rotary about the purpose of the Whistler Resort Association. Whistler Question Collection.

The WVLC stated that the main purpose of the WRA was “to ensure the success of Whistler,” mainly through marketing. Marketing Whistler included promoting and advertising the resort, providing public relations, and making reservations. Their operations would include a computerized central reservation system able to book rooms for large groups such as conferences, a service to handle general inquiries about Whistler, and a central billing system. The WRA would also be able to sponsor events in Whistler, such as concerts and festivals.

The WRA membership was to include those who owned or operated in the (still under construction) Town Centre and the Blackcomb benchlands, as well as anyone owning or operating a tourism related business outside of the “resort land” who chose to join. According to Land Company President Terry Minger, the WRA would function not unlike a shopping centre merchants association or a tenants organization.

Once completed, the WRA was also in charge of operations at the Whistler Conference Centre. Whistler Question Collection.

For the first few years, the WRA was expected to be funded mainly by the WVLC and contributions from the operators of Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Mountain, organizations who would also make up the majority of the board positions. The proposed budget for their first year of operations was set at $500,000.

Though some had expected the WRA to begin operating as early as late 1979, its bylaws first had to be approved by the provincial government. In March 1980, the Whistler Council voted to receive the new Resort Association Bylaws. By May 1980, all that the Whistler Question had to report was that no statement had been issued by the WVLC, the Council, or the province regarding the passage of the bylaws. Finally, by July 1980, the bylaws of the WRA had been approved and the association could move forward.

The WRA used federal government student employment programs in the early 1980s to provide entertainment in the village, offer tours, and work at the information booth. Whistler Question Collection.

The WRA quickly got to work hiring staff, such as their first executive director Karl Crosby, setting up systems, and marketing the resort of Whistler to the world. There were some challenges in their early years, such as a recession, continued construction, competing demands of members, and various changes in management (past general manager Peter Alder once said that for a period the WRA “went through managers like they went through coffees in the morning”) but the WRA remained a visible force promoting Whistler. They set up information booths at travel displays outside Whistler, coordinated visits for tour operators and conference organizers to show that Whistler was capable of, produced maps and directional signs in the valley, helped sponsor events such as the Fall Festival, Winterfest, and the first street entertainment program, and in 1981 introduced Whistler’s first mascot, a marmot named Willie Whistler. By 1986, membership of the WRA had grown to over 600 entities.

The WRA continues to operate in Whistler, promoting Whistler as a destination resort, operating a computerized central reservation system, and more, though today they are much better known as Tourism Whistler.

Expanding the Village

Read part one here.

In the late 1980s, the 58 acre Village North site was owned by the province and zoning was controlled by the RMOW. Whereas the original Village development had been mainly visitor driven, Village North was envisioned as supporting the community and bringing residents and visitors together. Community workshops were held through 1988 to determine what residents wanted to see in Village North before any rezoning was planned. According to then-Director of Planning Mike Vance, one ideas was to locate facilities such as the post office, medical centre, municipal hall, library, and museum in this area. At a speaker event in 2019, landscape architect Eldon Beck described his vision for such a plan: “This was intended to gradually involve the community in shopping, recreation, coming down to the town hall, coming to the library. So it’s a sequence of community interest activities merging then with the tourism population coming the other way, so the Northlands is where these communities all come together.”

Lot 29 in Village North is cleared by the Alldritt Development Group and Bradley Development Corporation, who planned to build 28 condo units by Lorimer Road. Whistler Question Collection, 1993.

The next step, after deciding on this plan, was to divide the entire site into parcels and zone each parcel in accordance with a master plan. Together, the RMOW, Beck, and Whistler Land Company Developments (WLC) developed a master plan even more detailed than that created for the first Village site, including not just the purpose of each parcel but also the individual elements of each building. According to Vance, this level of detail led to ” the largest single deposit in the land registry office’s history,” requiring most of a day to sign all of the documents involved. Council voted to approve the zoning bylaws for Village North on August 14, 1989 and by the end of 1990 WLC began selling development parcels. According to Mayor Drew Meredith, it took some time for Village North to get going and it remained “a weed patch” until developers such as Nat Bosa decided they wanted to be involved.

The construction of Marketplace in Village North. Whistler Question Collection, 1993.

Once it got going, however, work progressed quickly; Vance recalled a year when up to eleven cranes were up on the Village North site. Looking back in 1997, WLC President Jim Switzer said that the development of a master plan and the completed zoning provided stability and certainly for developers who knew exactly what was expected of them and for the RMOW who could plan for the future based on a clear picture of how development would proceed. In 1993, Mayor Ted Nebbeling cut the ribbon of the bridge over Village Gate Boulevard, officially connecting the Village Stroll through Village North. By 1997, of the development parcels were sold and the entire site was expected to be completed by the end of 1999.

Traffic lights are installed at the intersection of Village Gate and Northlands Boulevards. As the Village expanded, so did the traffic and roads. Whistler Question Collection, 1995.

Not everything in Village North went entirely smoothly. Beck’s vision was to have a series of buildings descending with the grade of the Village Stroll, but provincial regulations and the fire department required flat and level platforms, leading to a design with more steps, ramps and raised walkways than Beck wanted and narrowing the pedestrian stroll. Some developers also didn’t want to stick to the master plan. In 2019 Jim Moodie, previously a development consultant for WLC, remembered that the developer of Marketplace tried to convince them that he could “give [them] more money for [their] land” if the developer was allowed to build a one-level strip mall with parking out front and no residential units on top. Not surprisingly, the developer was told to stick to the plan.

In 1997, Switzer said that the primary job of the WLC was to recover the province’s investment in Whistler. According to the calculations of Garry Watson (a Free Person of the Resort Municipality of Whistler), the province invested about $20 million in Whistler when they formed the WLC in 1983 and made around $50 million on the development of Village North. Or, as Meredith summed it up, “They got all their money back and then some” and Whistler got the extended Village we see today.

Selling Ideas of the Village

The Whistler Village is often thought of as a single entity, stretching from the gondolas at the base of Whistler Mountain to Marketplace on Lorimer Road, and for some including the Upper Village at the base of Blackcomb Mountain. For those who visit Whistler for the first time, Village North is just as much a part of the Village as Village Square or Skiers Plaza. Village North, however, was built a whole decade after the development of the “original” Village had begun and, according to some stories from the late 1980s, the Village North of today was almost not built at all.

When Whistler, like the rest of Canada, was hit by a recession in the early 1980s, the Whistler Village was still in the early stages of development. While some buildings were completed and businesses were beginning to open, others had only poured their foundations. In 1983, the provincial government under Premier Bill Bennett established Whistler Land Co. Developments (WLC), a Crown corporation to take over the debts and liabilities of the Whistler Village Land Company. WLC also took over ownership of the Village North lands, which were eventually supposed to provide a return on investment for the province.

Eldon Beck and Drew Meredith speak at the event on the development of Whistler Village. Many stories were told, including a few featuring Kevin Murphy of BC Place Corporation and the development of Village North.

The economy slowly recovered and the province and the RMOW started negotiations in 1986 to return control and assets to the RMOW, including the development of Village North. By 1987 most of the Village sites had been completed, the conference centre and golf course were operating, Expo 86 had brought more international exposure to the area, Intrawest had bought Aspen’s interest in Blackcomb and was beginning to develop the Blackcomb Benchlands, and Canadian Pacific Hotels had announced the $80 million Chateau Whistler Resort. Whistler was expanding as a resort and becoming known as a destination.

The relationship between the WLC and the RMOW was not always harmonious. To some, it appeared that the WLC had been sent to “fix the problem” in Whistler and members of the WLC seemed dismissive of the work done and the future ideas for the Village. Over time Chester Johnson, the chair of the WLC board of directors, was persuaded of the merits of Whistler’s original plans for the Village, but Kevin Murphy of BC Place Corporation (another Crown corporations involved in the WLC and the ownership of the Village North lands) needed more convincing. In a speaker event in 2019, Drew Meredith (mayor of Whistler from 1986 to 1990) recalled that Murphy had decided the WLC was going to cut up Village North into residential lots and sell the lots to developers to build what they wanted.

The development of the Whistler Village in the 1970s and early 1980s required detailed plans, models and designs for each building and walkway before anything was built. This was almost not the case for Village North. Eldon Beck Collection

This horrified the RMOW and Meredith called up Lorne Borgal, then the president of Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation, and asked to borrow Eldon Beck. At the time, Beck, who had provided much of the vision of the first Whistler Village development, was working for Whistler Mountain on Olympic Meadows plans that never materialized. As Meredith described it, “We injected Eldon into the room with Kevin Murphy and two hours later they came out arm in arm. And what you got is what we got.”

It’s not clear exactly what happened in that meeting, but Beck jokingly described the experience at the same 2019 event: “I just appealed to his good side and so we went into the room together and I talked to him, we sand the Canadian national anthem, hugged, and cried a little bit and came out and the deal was done.” According to Jim Moodie, it was incredibly fortunate for Whistler that Beck got along with Murphy, who was “one of the toughest guys [he] ever worked for.”

An agreement between the province and the RMOW was reached by August 1989 and a detailed plan for the Village North site had been created. Next week, we’ll look a bit more at the development of Village North to the sale of the last lot in 1997.

Livening Up the Street

On the mid-to-late 1980s, after working as the Vice-President of Marketing at Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation, Mike Hurst began a new position as the acting general manager of the Whistler Resort Association (WRA), known today as Tourism Whistler. While Vancouver had drawn international attention during Expo 86, summers in the Whistler resort were still quite slow, with some businesses even shutting down for the season. According to Hurst, “People would come up to the Village, and they’d come in, and they’d go to a restaurant, and then they’d walk around wondering what to do, and there’d be very little to do.”

In an effort to change this, Hurst contacted Maureen Douglas and Laurel Darnell of Street Access and asked them to organize street entertainment in the Village for the summer of 1987. Though Douglas spent Expo 86 recovering from a broken leg, she was inspired by the “sleeper hit” street performers at the festival and wanted to ensure that talent wasn’t forgotten. She and Darnell formed Street Access Entertainment Society as a non-profit street entertainment booking and development society in September 1986. They were soon contracted to organize three days/week of entertainment in Whistler.

Some acts included combinations of acrobatics and knife juggling. Whistler Question Collection, 1993.

Each weekend the Village would host performances by jugglers, musicians, comedians, and character actors who roamed the Village Stroll. At the end of the summer, fifteen acts were brought together for the Whistler Street Festival Grand Finale over the Labour Day weekend to compete for a contract to perform at Expo 88 in Brisbane, Australia.

The street entertainers from the very first season in 1987. Photo courtesy of Maureen Douglas.

Street Access continued to organize summer street entertainment for the WRA, increasing to four days/week in 1988 and then seven days/week in 1989. The WRA then decided to bring festival and entertainment planning in house and asked Douglas to write a job description and apply. She began working at the WRA and ran the street entertainment program through the 1990s.

The Checkerboard Guy demonstrates how to eat fire on the Village Stroll. Whistler Question Collection, 1992.

According to Douglas, each year’s lineup was made of about 50% returning acts from the Lower Mainland and 50% new or touring acts. One regular act was Carolyn Sadowska, who appeared as Queen Elizabeth II and would instruct visitors on points of etiquette, provide tiaras and props, and pose for photos. Other acts included Fifi Lafluff (“the world’s worst hairdresser”), a cappella groups such as Party Fever, bands like the Mulberry Street Jazz Band, clowns, and comedic jugglers such as the Checkerboard Guy and Mike Battie (whose grand finale involved juggling pins and broccoli, which he proceeded to eat, accompanied by the William Tell Overture). Over the years Douglas also started to hire local musical acts, such as Stephen and Peter Vogler, singing group Colours on Key, and harpist Alison Hunter.

Colours on Key, a local singing group in Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1993.

By most accounts, the street entertainment program was a big success. Through the 1990s the September festival was renamed Whistler’s Really Big Street Fest and weekly showcases were added to the schedule. Acts were carefully placed throughout the Village, as some could attract audiences of 300 to 400 people. While this was alright in Village Square, in other areas those numbers created gridlock.

Performances could fill Village Square, sometimes even impeding foot traffic. Whistler Question Collection, 1993.

Whistler became part of the street entertainment circuit, joining other festivals across Canada in cities such as Halifax and Edmonton. While some of the other areas offered performers a chance to make a lot of money through busking, the WRA didn’t want the audience to have to pay and instead offered a “working holiday,” with a decent fee, accommodation, wine and cheese get-togethers on Fridays, and time to enjoy summer in Whistler. Douglas remembered that one of the producers of a busking festival once told her, “You know, our one beef with Whistler is that you guys are just too nice. They come here and then we don’t treat them quite as well and they’re miffed.”

Encouraging summer visitors was a large focus of the WRA and Mike Hurst in the mid-to-late 1980s and street entertainment was just one strategy to increase numbers. For many visitors and residents, however, the performers were one of the most memorable parts of their Village experience.