Tag Archives: Whistler Village

Whistler at 22% Interest – Part 2

Find Part 1 here.

When the financial crisis of the 1980s hit Whistler even the prime real estate at the base of both mountains did not make it through unscathed. Dick Gibbons and Jack Cram were partners in Fitzsimmons Condominiums and Stoney’s Restaurant, where La Bocca is today. With a completed Whistler development under their belts, they were approached by Whistler Village Land Company (WVLC) about potentially purchasing the unfinished project where the Carleton Lodge now stands.

The base of Whistler Mountain in 1981 showing the Carleton Lodge under construction. The Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside Hotel can be seen on the right. The base of the mountain looks a bit different today! Arv Pellegrin Collection.

At the time the foundation was partially complete and it was anticipated that this building would be a day lodge and gateway for both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, however WVLC’s finances were dire and there was not enough money to finish the project. Dick recalls a conversation with Neil Griggs, President of the WVLC “I don’t want to exaggerate this, he literally begged us to finish the Carleton Lodge. I seem to recall he had tears in his eyes.”

Together with additional partners, they negotiated a deal wherein they agreed to finish the project on the condition that if they were unable to sell the 32 condominium units for a certain price the development permit charges would be refunded. Throughout the build the architect, building contractor, and many partners felt the financial strain. By the end of the project, Dick Gibbons and Ken Mahon were the only two left to finance and run the show.

Dick Gibbons and Gilbert Konqui in 1981. It was all hands on deck to get the Carleton Lodge and The Longhorn completed. Whistler Question Collection.

When the Carleton Lodge was finally completed in November 1982, few residential units sold and Dick Gibbons ended up running The Longhorn because nobody else would buy it. The unsold residential units were transferred to the people involved in the development according to their investments, and development permit charges were refunded as initially agreed after the court got involved.

When Dick Gibbons was asked how he was able to balance his finances while many in Whistler could not, he said, “Being a little more risk adverse than some others might be was good for me at times and bad for me at other times because you miss opportunities. I sold quite a bit of real estate when the market had its peak in Vancouver because I thought it pretty much couldn’t go any higher.” Obviously real estate in Vancouver did eventually increase, but selling these real estate investments left Dick in a more comfortable position when interest rates skyrocketed, although it was still a difficult period.

Signs for The Longhorn and Nasty Jack’s can be seen while the Carleton Lodge is still under construction in 1982. Arv Pellegrin Collection.

Interest rates had an impact throughout all of the Whistler community. Bruce Watt, who had been a patroller since 1974, decided his family needed better financial security which led to him getting into real estate, a career he has loved and where you will still find him today. On the other hand, the ugly unfinished Village led realtor Drew Meredith to make “the mistake of running for Mayor in 1986” (his words, not mine) where he served for two terms.

While similar circumstances led to very different decisions, a consistent sentiment when talking to long-time locals about this time is that they would not want to do it again. The Village was started just in time, a year later and it may never have happened.

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.

Racing into the Summer of 1982

On June 20, 1982, Whistler hosted what may have been its first mountain bike race, the (unofficial) Canadian Off-Road Cycle Championship organized by John Kirk. About three weeks later, the Molson Whistler Bike Race also took place in Whistler. Despite some very marked differences, the two events did have at least one thing in common: Jacob Heilborn.

The year before these two races took place in Whistler, Rocky Mountain Bicycles Ltd. had been incorporated in Vancouver by Grayson Bain, Sam Mak, and Jacob Heilbron. The three had already begun modifying their Nishiki bikes to ride trails in the mountains, adding the wider tires and straight handlebars described as “puffy” and “upright” by the Whistler Question. In 1982, the same year that Whistler hosted its first mountain bike race, Rocky Mountain Bicycles produced the Sherpa, the first mountain bike created in Canada.

Competitors reach their bikes after running down from the Le Mans start under the Village Chair. Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

According to the Question and some of the competitors, the Canadian Off-Road Cycle Championship held in June 1982 may have actually been one of the first mountain bike races in Canada, taking place two years before the Canadian Off-Road Bicycle Association was formed in 1984. Seventeen competitors signed up for the race featuring “puffy over-sized balloon tires and upright handlebars.” It began with a Le Mans start down the lower part of the Village Chair to their bikes in Mountain Square. From there, the course headed out to Lost Lake, along Green Lake, and back from the Wedge Creek turnoff to end up on the Lost Lake trail again.

The racer who took first place, Tony Starck, reportedly bought his first off-road bike just three weeks before the race. Russ Maynard came second and third went to Jacob Heilbron, who remembered switching to a road bike on the one highway section of the course and thus picking up about three places before switching back to his mountain bike for the trails. Prizes were also awarded to the first one-speed to cross the finish line, the competitor who finished closest to an unspecified “mystery time,” and the person who did the best wheelie in the wheelie contest held the day before.

Chaz Romalis, owner of the Deep Cove Bike Shop in North Vancouver, leads the pack during the race. Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

In contrast to the unofficial championship with few rules, the Molson Whistler Bike Race held in July 1982 had 120 competitors with road bikes, a well-marked course with marshalls, and even corporate sponsorship. While mountain biking was still a very new sport, road cycling was well established and 1982 was reportedly the twelfth year the Molson Bike Race was held (it is unclear whether all twelve races were held in Whistler). The event, which featured a two-stage course from Vancouver to Whistler and then on to Pemberton as well as a 50-lap criterium race around the Town Centre, was organized by the same Jacob Heilbron who placed third in the Off-Road Cycle Championship.

The racers in the Molson Whistler Bike Race head through the Whistler Village on much skinnier tires. Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

Despite some criticisms of the criterium course, Ross Chafe placed first overall in the Molson Whistler Bike Race, followed by Tom Broznowski, then the US national road-racing champion. In third was Beau Pulfer, a member of the Canadian National Team. Genevieve Brunet took first in the women’s category, with Sheila Cavers and Kelly-Anne Way taking second and third places. Most racers and organizers agreed that the event went “exceptionally well.”

Forty years later, mountain biking has arguably replaced road cycling as the dominant form of recreation on two wheels in Whistler. There continue to be many riders, however, who participate in both sports and both continue to be well represented in the summer months, with Crankworx returning this August and the GranFondo scheduled for September.

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 Phillip 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.