Not business as usual 

High costs hinder village businesses

Owner Aldo Balzarini closes his Main Street shop, the Penalty Box, in two weeks. Balzarini says high property taxes and lack of customers are shutting him out.
  • Owner Aldo Balzarini closes his Main Street shop, the Penalty Box, in two weeks. Balzarini says high property taxes and lack of customers are shutting him out.

Declining revenues, steep rents, and sky-rocketing property taxes are causing some long-term Whistler businesses to close their doors.

Aldo Balzarini is closing his Main Street sport-clothing store, the Penalty Box, as of Dec. 11. In the same location for 10 years, Balzarini says he isn’t seeing the revenue he did six years ago.

"Our numbers are down 50 per cent," he said in his almost-empty store Monday afternoon.

Revenues shrank to $300,000 last year from over $600,000 in the 1998/99 season. Balzarini says there is less walk-in traffic than previous years and attributes that to fewer business conferences and lack of festivals in his north-end village location.

"The hotels will tell you we’re still bringing in the conferences, but I ask customers what brings them here and unlike other years no one is saying it’s for a conference."

He says the NHL lock-out last winter was disastrous for his shop, which focuses on selling sport clothing and sports-related items such as team jerseys, caps and footwear.

But he also blames rising insurance premiums and property taxes that have almost doubled in 10 years for his decision to close the Penalty Box doors and let go two staff members.

Balzarini’s taxes have risen from $7,200 to $12,000 annually. The Penalty Box gave up its bike rental service this year after insurance premiums increased from $3,200 to $5,700 annually. His rent has remained stable at $6,100 month for the 1,200 sq. ft. shop.

"That’s the same as you would pay on Robson (Street in Vancouver)," he said. "But Whistler doesn’t have the consistency of Robson Street."

Local realtor Drew Meredith says he has about four vacant spaces in the Marketplace and about a dozen clients interested in leasing space in the Village Stroll, but high rates are stalling deals.

"Rents need to come down," he said. "Eighty-five dollars a square foot is okay – $95 is not."

In addition, Meredith says triple net charges, costs a business pays to cover communal charges such as property taxes, strata fees and utilities, are too high.

"Property taxes are a burden on businesses and need to be examined by the municipality," he said. "They’re out of whack."

The Whistler Chamber of Commerce says membership numbers are actually up this year and although tracking why some members close their doors is problematic, Adriana Hume, member services co-ordinator, says that one member recently shut down because of a potential 60 per cent rent hike.

The Penalty Box isn’t the only struggling Main Street business. La Tortilleria’s lease is up for renewal in March and owner Anna Suski is contemplating what to do if the rent goes up on her eatery.

"When you’re losing money, it’s no fun," said the owner of the 10-year-old café.

Unlike most Whistler businesses that rely on snow to attract customers, La Tortilleria makes its money in the summer. But not this past summer.

"I make in three days what I used to make in one," she said.

Suski has not hired any staff this season and is working 11-hour days solo.

She says property taxes and rents have to come down if small businesses are to survive in Whistler.

"We need help. Not tomorrow, not today, but yesterday," she said.

Chamber president Bernie Lalor-Morton says that help will come with the hiring of an economic development officer and with new programs the Chamber will offer members.

In a departure from offering courses that strengthen employee skills, such as Food Safe and First Aid, Lalor-Morton says the Chamber intends to provide strategic planning workshops in marketing and finance for employers.

"We can help businesses by providing them with tools to help themselves," she said. "If they’re relying on a bookkeeper, they need to be able to read a financial statement and know where their money is going."

She said an economic development officer to be hired in the next six months will examine economic trends and determine gaps in service to Whistler’s commercial community.

"We need to think about joint marketing (of Whistler), about how we can do things together and provide more support for the business community."

Businesswoman Cathy Goddard says Whistler needs a positive buzz.

"We have been talked about but it’s all been negative," says the owner of Whistler’s Personnel Solution. She says news around the mountain’s early opening and the peak-to-peak gondola has been good, but more needs to be done.

"Maybe landlords have to re-think if it helps their cause to have papered over space-for-lease windows. We don’t need tourists to see that. We need to get that paper down."


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