From regional ski area to resort
Who built Whistler’s sewer and Town Centre was just as much an issue as what was built
By Chris Woodall
The Christian calendar marks years in terms of "BC" (Before Christ) and "AD" (After the Dude). In Whistler’s small span of history, we can follow a similar pattern to set the chrono-line at BTC and ATC: Before the Town Centre and After the Centre.
In the years BTC until the first phase of the Town Centre, or what we have come to call Whistler Village, became more than a glittery dream in some people’s minds, Whistler was nothing more than what a lot of other ski resorts were: a decent regional ski slope with possibilities.
In the years ATC, Whistler took that giant leap that after 20 years has, at the dawn of the third millennium AD, made Whistler the paramount four-season ski resort in North America, if not the whole stinkin’ universe!
Or so the hype has played itself out today.
Back at the turn of BTC/ATC, however, the hype was the same… but seemed to be no more than that: "(The Town Centre) will be the focal point for one of the outstanding year-round resorts on this continent," proclaims a special insert in Whistler’s weekly newspaper 20 years ago. You could have been reading that item, back in mid-1978 when there wasn’t more to look at than scrubby trees and a garbage dump at the base of Whistler Mountain’s Olympic Run, and be forgiven if you were a little skeptical.
Enough of all that. Let’s take a look back at those days of hope and glory; let’s go back to the mid-1970s; let’s go back to Whistler’s Dawn of Time.
When God created Man, He may have done it out of whole cloth, but if He had followed the Whistler plan, He would have created Man’s bowels before getting to Man’s Heart & Soul.
So it was done. Before there could be a Town Centre, there had to be a sewer line. Whistler was a mere 850 folks back then, and the labouring-minded among them hoped to get in on the fun building Whistler’s large intestine.
Locals getting work on the project operated by Vancouver outfits soon became a bung that needed clearing. The then-mimeographed Whistler Question newspaper was only six issues old when it had its first controversy.
"Despite rumours to the contrary, the Question can find no documented evidence… that a percentage of the labour force employed will be locals," publisher, editor, ad salesman and chief bottle washer Paul Burrows wrote in a May 19, 1976, item about the impending sewer project that would link the future Town Centre — and the rest of the community — to the treatment plant south of Function Junction. It seems that while a municipal stipulation asked that local labour or materials be specified as part of the work done, there was no pressure to fulfil that aspect of the deal.
Instead, members of Local 602 of the labourers union were to get first crack at any jobs. With a 1976 unemployment rate of 10 per cent in Vancouver, there was some despair that locals would get anything.
The demand was there. For a community as small as Whistler, 20 applicants had signed up at the grandly-named "City Hall" to be "flag girls," with another 30 men and women lining up for jobs as labourers.
Standard-General Construction got the $2.37-million contract, July 5, 1976, with work to start on the 12th and done like dinner by early December.
By the end of July, however, "once again we have rumbles in the valley, due to… local labour not being used on the sewer construction project," the local weekly said.
Whistler Mayor Pat Carleton and council wibbled out of the controversy, the mayor saying, "the union has the final say," when it ordered Standard-General to fire two non-union men and one woman.
The Question, too, seems to have wanted to play hide-and-seek with the union, noting that there was lots of work elsewhere in Whistler. "Most local contractors have more work than they can handle," editor Burrows mused on July 21, 1976. "Let’s get after the jobs we can get instead of being hardnosed about those we can’t."
But local noises were heard so that by early August a head count found several Whistlerites beavering away on the sewer line project.
Unions were a busy bunch back then. While locals were trying to earn a paycheque on the sewer line, Local 213 of the Teamsters made a play to sign up employees of the Garibaldi Lift Company (Whistler Mountain). Nothing much was heard of that effort.
This was a time of wage and price controls as governments tried to inspire paypacket restraint while the inflation rate ran into ever-larger double digits. "Can’t survive on Six & Five" became a rallying cry for labour forces all over Canada.
The first phase of the sewer line made its December goal, helped by Mother Nature who held back the snow. Whistler Mountain only opened on Dec. 12, 1976, by offering Green Chair runs to kick off that year on a skimpy 20-inch snow base. A day pass was $5.
By August, 1977 it was time to award the next phase of the sewer contract. Council tried harder and put in a clause demanding a certain percentage of the workforce be locals. Valid Construction won the bid, promising to hire 70 per cent of its labour locally, first going to those already in Local 602 of the Labourers Union and then requiring the rest to join up if they were to get work. Wages were $9.26 an hour, then double time ($18.52/hr) after a 7.5 hour day. Not too shabby when the minimum wage was something like $1.65/hr.
When mid-October arrived, the first plans for the Town Centre were spoken out loud and a summer, 1978, construction start was targeted. The dream appears to gain substance, although few details are made public.
Monday, February 13, 1978 — Whistlerites get their first look at plans for the Town Centre. This is the first time, too, that "Whistler Village" is mentioned as the name for the project.
It was a big night with some 250 people showing up at Myrtle Philip School (it was then located along the north side of Village Gate Boulevard, between the present Cascade Lodge and Hy’s Steakhouse).
The preliminary plans were awkward, if not downright ugly to look at. There was in the original scheme, for example, a plan to include a paved artificial lake in the centre of town that would be drained in the autumn to make room for skier parking.
The first package had to be ready for occupancy by December, 1978, and would include civic offices, several retail outlets and the all-important liquor store. While pedestrian traffic was a big feature right off, that first revelation also promised amenities, including a winter skating rink doubling as a cement pond in the summer.
A little tinkering here and there and by June 9, 1978, the "final suggested plans" were on display. This date also signals the decline of Creekside as the community hub. "All new development will be directed to the Town Centre and competing efforts will not be permitted at least for a few years and until the Town Centre is well-established," says the brochure. Now you know why Lake Placid Road has fallen to such disrepair.
Also in those June plans, the first and 18th holes — and the clubhouse — of the revamped, Arnold Palmer-designed Whistler Golf Club were to be located on the east side of Highway 99; and there was talk "a stream will be diverted from Fitzsimmons Creek to wind through the $50-million Town Centre and enlarged into a pool." While the stream was axed, the idea was later resurrected as the linear Village Park that you’ll find wending across Village North.
Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. was not to be left behind in the hoopla, announcing $6.5-million for three new lifts to serve the "currently undeveloped" north face of Whistler Mountain, connecting the mountain to the new Town Centre. Blackcomb Mountain, too, was on those nascent architect’s etchings of the Town Centre. Development of the mountain had been on people’s minds for years but it would be October of 1978 before the rights were awarded to the Aspen Skiing Co.
One of the first town maps of this time shows an ice arena and a municipal hall behind where the Keg restaurant sits and suggests all four phases encompassing all of what is now Whistler Village would reach build-out by "beyond 1988."
Meanwhile, the design team for the Whistler Village Land Co. — the wholly-owned municipal company that marketed the village parcels to developers — finds that its budget has gone over the top by $30,500. In these days, a three-bedroom waterfront cabin at Emerald Estates is going for $70,000.
It’s springtime, 1978, and council has turned its thoughts to work for locals, establishing a policy that all municipal contracts must have a minimum 25 per cent local workforce.
That summer of 1978, the hot topic was Council’s plans to make the junction of Lorimer Road and Highway 99 a business area featuring service, commercial and industrial uses, "unless, of course, those of us opposed to this site can somehow put a stop to it," wrote a rebellious Ruth Howells in a letter-to-the-editor. "Apart from members of Council, I have yet to meet anyone who supports this location."
One councillor was caught saying Lorimer Road "is the only suitable location," the only so-called other choice being the Mons site, where the highway now crosses the B.C. Rail line north of Whistler Village.
Locals find they can beat Municipal Hall in July, 1978, when Mayor Carleton breaks a tie vote in the face of a crowd of 120, quite a gathering in a town of maybe 900 people. "An acceptable" compromise is armwrestled sending zoning for service commercial uses to Function Junction.
Meanwhile, hotter heads had little recourse to chill out. This was the summer of the beer strike. The few dozens of cases that arrived each week were sold out within minutes. Barley sandwich fans had to resort to pricey European brands, eventually lowering their sights when American products were imported as the summer strike wore on.
Pemberton, it seems, had something going more than Whistler in those days. Weekly counts by Whistler’s weekly noted that the northerners were scooping larger loads of beer than Whistler’s beer outlet got. Local restaurants, stymied by liquor control board rationing, were hiring parking lot hangers-on to buy additional cases.
Anxiety (caused by lack of beer?) spills out into the construction community as fears grow that Vancouver labour will snag all the Town Centre construction jobs.
"Guys from the city who are hungry (are) coming up here and taking the business away from locals," says Whistler gravel company entrepreneur Mark Clarke. "The locals will get priced out and they will be standing on the side watching as these guys from the city fight for the work."
Trouble appears to be brewing even if the beer isn’t, when David Tobias complains to council in mid-July, 1978, that Local 602 engineered his being laid off at the Whiski Jack site in Nordic Estates, even though Tobias had a permit that allowed him to work there for $7 an hour.
August 21, 1978 — The first sod is turned for the Town Centre. A front page photo in the Question shows a bulldozer and 75 people in the middle of a desperately scrubby patch of nothing, described as some 25 yards south-east of the school grounds. CBC-TV is there as are scribes from the Vancouver Sun and Province, and a variety of radio stations… all of whom descended on Whistler via floatplane to Alta Lake.
No doubt thinking of all the dirt around him, Whistler Mayor Carleton utters the immortal words: "To be number one takes a little longer."
Question editor Burrows adds that, "The spot will never look the same."
Whistler Village enters the final year of BTC, and readies itself for year one, ATC.