On the surface at least, it seems that the winter season was a successful one for Whistler.
Several room-night records were broken, and Whistler Blackcombís latest quarterly results, released Wednesday (May 9), show increases in both revenue and skier visits. Overall, room nights are expected to be at least 10 per cent higher than last winter.
But a recent, contrasting story reveals multiple local businesses closing their doors. In addition to news last week that Doc Braniganís restaurant, the Elephant and Castle and Pizza Cafť shut down, and the Merrill store is on its way out, additional casualties came to light this week. Food Plus in Creekside is also closing, and Loka Yoga is looking for a new location starting June 1 after receiving notice that its rent is being more than doubled.
So if the winter was such as success in terms of the number of visitors coming to the resort, what gives? Why does it seem like more empty storefronts are popping up almost every day?
Unfortunately, we think there arenít any easy answers to that question, or a clear direction in which to point fingers.
But thereís still value in trying to analyze the situation and what it might mean for the resortís future. We donít have all the answers, but in keeping with what seems to be a new, refreshing spirit of collaboration at municipal hall, we think itís worthwhile to have a community dialogue about such challenging issues.
After all, whether we like it or not, the success of local businesses and the resort as a whole impacts all of us who rely on a Whistler paycheque so we can remain living here.
So on a broad level, the world economy is still very much in turmoil. Uncertainty is the theme of the day, it seems, and for every small step forward in the U.S. and European countries, there are also setbacks.
Even with Whistlerís epic snowfall levels this winter, its quality recreation offerings and many special hotel offers, the reality is that travelers have less money to spend, theyíre being more cautious with their money and theyíre more focused on value than ever before.
That likely translates into more visitors using their hotel room kitchens to prepare their own food instead of eating out three meals a day. And it means less disposable income for shopping ó†hence the fact that restaurants and retail outlets seem to be bearing the brunt of the ongoing economic challenges.
On a more local level, the issue of commercial rent levels certainly needs to be examined ó†especially in the Village. Rumour has it that a rent increase led to Merrillís decision to close, and according to Loka Yogaís owner the rent at the Saint Andrews House location was set to jump from $2,500 to $6,700 per month.
But perhaps itís not just a question of greedy commercial landlords. According to one off-the-record source, it costs $12 per square foot each month just to cover property taxes in a Village commercial space. If that figure is accurate, thatís $8,400 per month for a 700 square foot space ó†again, just to cover the property taxes.
Clearly both commercial landlords and council need to be brought into this important discussion. We think they both have a role to play.
So, do you have any bright ideas on how independent, locally-owned businesses can be supported in Whistler? Letís get the dialogue going.
- Jennifer Miller