Whistler is embarking on a significant long-term planning exercise these days with numerous reports in the pipe that will determine the future direction of parks and recreation, learning and education, culture and economic development. The most recent piece of the puzzle was presented last week, the Economic Partnership Initiative (EPI) Committee’s second draft report.
I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a dry read, full of the kind of jargon that makes eyes glass over and robs one’s body of oxygen. I yawned once or twice.
But while it’s all very high-level stuff, some things do pop out at you. Taken as a whole, it’s probably one of the more important pieces of paper (30 pages actually, double-sided) to pass through municipal hall in a while.
As we discovered in July with the first draft of the EPI report, Whistler’s economy is extremely dependent right now on destination visitors, and especially winter destination visitors, that account for about 85 per cent of Whistler’s billion-dollar tourism industry. While everyone knew destination visitors were important, it’s fair to say that the report dropped a few jaws.
You could argue that those numbers make a case for economic diversification, but it’s also clear that we need to make sure that we continue to draw those destination visitors in the future, giving them more reasons to come to Whistler and recommend us to their friends.
There is no shortage of suggestions in the updated report how Whistler can achieve this, and the good news is that we’re not starting at zero — a lot of those things have already been identified as issues from previous reports and visitor feedback, and we’re already working on them. Examples include improving Whistler Welcome Strategy, engaging landlords to improve Whistler’s retail mix, creating a better arrival experience in the resort and at hotels/properties, improving customer service.
One element also looks at increasing the number of indoor activities available to visitors if the weather turns nasty, which it frequently does in this part of the world.
Some of the suggestions in that focus area include developing a weather mitigation plan, reviewing and considering weather-independent proposals, improving and extending programs like the Whistler Holiday Experience, expanding programming in the Pavilion at Whistler Olympic Plaza and evaluating the potential of expanding the product and programming at Meadow Park Sport Centre.
Interestingly, the municipality’s latest work on liquor laws and past work lobbying for things like letting kids into bars until a certain time could ultimately have the biggest impact on indoor recreation, and getting the private sector involved.
We’ve had indoor recreation before. In fact, when I first moved to Whistler I got a part-time job at a place called Alpenrock to supplement my reporter pay.
It was exactly the kind of place we need right now: two bars, including a restaurant/club with a stage for hosting performances (Sir Mix-a-lot and Ice Cube were particularly good) a pool hall with 30 tables, a video game room with probably two dozen machines and an eight-lane bowling alley, where I worked happily as a pin monkey. I unjammed pin-setting machines (we called them the “manglers”), rented shoes, fixed computers, brought players food and drinks, played DJ and generally had a good time.
But Alpenrock failed, like Mountain World before it, for a few reasons. Rent was high for one thing — it measured something like 38,000 square feet, and cost $6.6 million to build — and it just wasn’t that busy in the shoulder seasons, which were a lot wider a dozen years ago than they are now. But the main reason Alpenrock went under, according to the owners, was the fact that they could not convince council to add more licensed seats. Council wanted to keep it family friendly, the owners wanted to stay in business, and the provincial liquor laws didn’t allow for any kind of compromise that could accomplish both things.
The Village 8 movie theatres and Three Below occupy part of that space now, but there are still tens of thousands of square feet of undeveloped space down there that’s prime for another attempt at indoor recreation.
I suspect that if the Alpenrock was built tomorrow it would have a lot more support at all levels of government and we’d have one heck of a family-friendly, weather-independent attraction.
And I’d be bowling reliably in the mid-200s.