A vision for a valley – part III
The vision realized
By Bob Barnett
Premier Bill Bennett's decision to establish a Crown corporation in 1983 — WLC Developments — to help Whistler out of its financial mess was not universally popular. And with a provincial election in the air it was an easy target for the opposition NDP. Claus Speikermann, the NDP candidate in the Howe Sound riding, spoke for many outside of Whistler when he said, "I think they're bailing out the wealthy."
Whether anyone in Whistler had made any money on the resort development at that point is doubtful, but Speikermann’s was a common sentiment. The fact that the board of WLC Developments was composed entirely of friends and business acquaintances of Bennett fuelled that feeling. The list included Wendy McDonald of B.C. Bearing, Ed Odishaw of the law firm Swinton and Co., Mike Rogers of the Bank of B.C., former attorney general Alan Williams and several others. Everyone in Whistler expected Mayor Mark Angus or someone else from the community to be appointed, but that wasn’t the case.
"It was the premier who appointed the board, because they had everything at risk," says Chester Johnson, the man who chaired WLC Developments.
"He took quite a gamble to give us that kind of money ($21 million), but he knew the people, myself and the rest of the directors. We did it all on our own time. But all our meetings ran from probably 3 o’clock until midnight — and this went on for years. None of them got paid five cents."
While Whistler was relieved to have the province step in and take over its debts and liabilities, the town was also nervous about this autonomous Crown corporation acting solely in the province's interest. It was, at times, a strained relationship.
"I had a few words with Angus during that time," Johnson says. "He came to me once and said 'You can't just do what you want to do.' And I said, 'Listen, Angus, I've been appointed by the premier of this province, who's given me the money, and we can do it the nice way or the hard way. You're bankrupt, if you want to be an arm of the provincial government, you just say so and I'll go and that's what will happen.'
"I said, 'I don't want any trouble. All I want to do is fix this place so people don't go bankrupt.' And that's how it started."
By the time WLC Developments took control of the Whistler Village Land Company the economy had bottomed out. The first order of business was to stabilize things and create an environment for future investment, by finishing the golf course and conference centre.
"We either turned the corner or Whistler would have been toast. That's what it amounted to," Johnson says.
"Even Blackcomb, it was owned by the Federal Business Development Bank and the Aspen Skiing Company and they weren't doing anything."
But as the economy slowly recovered investment began to trickle in. One by one the foundations which had been abandoned in 1981 and ’82 were bought and hotels built. Importantly, skier visits continued to grow each year throughout the recession.
"There was a lot of mud and a lot of hoarding that no one cared about," Drew Meredith recalls of the village during the recession. "We painted it a few times and had contests. It was so bad that at one point I was trying to devise a scheme to bury these sites in foam and plastic and put some dirt on them — because we had no idea how long it was going to be.
"But as it turned out, the customers came."
The customers were mostly skiers from B.C., with a few from Alberta, Ontario and Washington. But by 1985, when Bennett officially opened the revamped Whistler Conference Centre, things were starting to take off. The following year, 1986, marked the crowning moment of Bennett's administration: Expo 86 in Vancouver.
"Expo was pivotal for us," Meredith says. "I didn't realize it until later, but it was a really important piece of the puzzle. People I'd met 10 years previously in San Francisco now knew where Vancouver was." And as Vancouver's profile increased so did Whistler's.
The Expo year was also when Intrawest bought the Aspen Skiing Company's interest in Blackcomb. With the village substantially complete, or at least appearing substantially complete, Intrawest was allowed to begin development of its lands on the Blackcomb Benchlands. And there was now a market for the condos Intrawest was building.
Even Canadian Pacific Hotels saw value in Whistler, announcing that it would build the first chateau-style resort hotel in Canada in nearly a century, the $80 million Chateau Whistler Resort.
With the recovery nearly complete and Whistler growing steadily, WLC Developments began to look for its payback, Village North. Right from the day in 1982 when Whistler first approached the province for help, the Village North lands were always seen as providing that return on investment. The province now owned the lands but the municipality controlled the zoning. Negotiations on the Village North lands, the return of the golf course and conference centre and several other pieces of land began in 1986.
"We never really discussed the conference centre or the golf course going in," says Meredith, who was mayor of Whistler from 1986 to 1990. "It was just an assumption that because it was part of the package or part of the deal that ultimately we would work out a solution to make sure those facilities were available to the public.
"It got quite scary in the late ’80s when the province decided that maybe they were going to sell those assets to the private sector. It may have been a ploy on their part to get us moving — and it got us moving."
Johnson says there was never any serious consideration of selling the golf course or conference centre to private interests. Regardless, negotiations over the return of the two facilities were complicated, in part because the golf course makes money and the conference centre operates at a deficit. The final deal had to include a formula for covering the conference centre's operating debt.
And even though Johnson had been convinced of the merit of Whistler's plans, when it came to negotiations on the Village North lands his boss, Kevin Murphy of B.C. Place Corporation, had to be persuaded.
"I remember one incredible situation for me was when Kevin Murphy came in and said 'We're just going to take Village North, bring the corps. of engineers in here and buck it up into quarter acre lots,'" Meredith recalls.
"We went, 'Whoa, you can't do that.' I actually ended up phoning Eldon Beck and said 'Eldon you've got to help me here, you've got to talk to this guy. We're not getting anywhere trying to convince him of, you know, the dream.'"
Beck sat down with Murphy and Murphy became a believer.
"That was really, really important," Meredith says. "I mean, they were still pounding away on density all the way through Village North, in terms of they wanted more density, more units, more of this, more of that. That was a continual fight because their interests were not our interests. We wanted a scale of village that was in keeping with what we had and looked good. None of these people had any experience with multi-use integrated development. They were used to buying a parking lot in Vancouver and building a high-rise."
While negotiations were continuing with the province, there was also a realization that by 1987 the corner had been turned and Whistler had to start planning if it wanted to take the next step to becoming a year-round, destination resort. Whistler council and key staff members made a tour of resort towns in Colorado and brought back several ideas.
"What impressed everyone on that tour was the importance of the village and of parks," says Mike Vance, a planner who had worked for WVLC, became the municipality's first director of parks and recreation and for many years was director of planning.
It was decided that one of the first steps to making Whistler a summer destination would be to expand and enhance the municipal parks. The problem was the municipal taxation system didn't generate enough revenue to pay for more parks. The solution, from Whistler's point of view, also came from Colorado, where towns such as Aspen and Vail have a resort-wide sales tax. But in order for Whistler to get taxing authority the province had to be convinced.
In September of 1987 a delegation from Whistler appeared before the cabinet committee on economic development. Their multi-media presentation was called Whistler Inc. – A case study of an exceptional enterprise.
"Our message was you can't support the resort, in the quality people expect, based on the existing municipal tax regime," Meredith recalls.
The presentation described the Whistler Resort Association as a network of partnerships, "All 350 businesses divisions of Whistler Inc." It showed the committee Whistler knew what it was doing, where it had come from and where it was going. And the presentation stressed that Whistler had reached a plateau and needed to build summer business.
The provincial government didn't like the idea of a tax that applied to everything when it was only needed to pay for resort amenities. Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Vander Zalm suggested the tax be applied to hotel rooms.
"It was one of those snap political decisions which don't get made very often anymore," Meredith says. "It paid for an incredible amount of stuff throughout the municipality. Without it we would have had roaring high taxes or we would have had all kinds of battles and feuds, because we couldn't maintain the facilities here at the normal municipal taxation level."
Ultimately, the two per cent hotel tax granted Whistler was a key to the province returning the golf course and conference centre. The conference centre's operating deficit was one of the sticking points in negotiations. The municipality and the WRA agreed that a portion of the hotel tax would go to the WRA to cover the deficit. At the same time the province passed a bill making the golf course and conference centre tax exempt, as long as they are owned by the municipality and managed by the resort association.
Negotiations for the Village North lands were even more complex.
"We had to create separate parcels for each and every building, which meant you really had to define the building plan," Vance says. "We went into volumetrics and parcel-specific design guidelines and really took the level of detail on each building and moved them into the actual negotiated agreement."
Underground parking, easements and maintenance responsibilities also had to be worked out.
"Then we had to actually prepare the wording in all the agreements for execution," Vance continues. "I believe it was the largest single deposit in the land registry office's history. It's an amazing number of documents. It took us almost a day to sign them all."
By August of 1989 Whistler and the province had reached an agreement. A detailed, overall plan had been hammered out for Village North and Whistler was ready to adopt zoning bylaws for the land. Terms and conditions for returning the conference centre and golf course to the municipality were agreed upon and the province had consented to relocate Myrtle Philip school — which was on Village North lands — to a piece of Crown land on Lorimer Road.
"By our calculations the debt is paid tonight — with interest," Mayor Drew Meredith said on Aug. 14, after council voted 4-2 in favour of zoning bylaws for Village North.
Alderman Ted Nebbeling was one of the dissenting voters. Nebbeling said he was not opposed to the deal as a whole but felt the province had pushed the municipality to adopt the zoning bylaws. He also believed the conference centre would be a burden to local taxpayers, as the Delta Whistler Resort and the new Chateau Whistler Resort, which opened in November of 1989, both had conference facilities.
But on November 27, 1989 the transfer of the golf course and conference centre to the municipality were completed.
Whistler was now concentrating on building summer business. In 1988 the municipality had issued a call for development proposals which would provide summer amenities. By 1990 three main ones had been selected: the Whistler Racquet and Golf Resort, the Chateau Whistler Golf Course and the Nicklaus North Golf Course, on Norm Paterson’s land at the south end of Green Lake.
In December of 1990 Nebbeling succeeded Meredith as mayor. Shortly thereafter WLC Developments began to sell development parcels in Village North. And not too long after that British Columbians elected their second NDP government.
"Once the layout and design of the Village North lands were approved there was a commitment by the provincial government to build in phases," Nebbeling says. "And, of course, once they had all the plans, the zoning and all the controls they just went like wildfire and they started to sell it as fast as they could."
Village North was originally expected to be a 7-12 year development project, but with Whistler’s winter and summer profile increasing, visitor numbers climbing every year and a strong economy, the market for the Village North parcels was hot. By the mid-90s WLC Developments had sold virtually all of the parcels and work was underway on most of them. But the public spaces in Village North, including the site for a municipal arena, were still under negotiation.
"I think I met with them every damn week," Nebbeling says. "The meetings were often very aggressive because our interest was Whistler; their interest was to get as much money out of it as possible."
In fact, Whistler had become so successful the municipality couldn’t afford to build an arena on its own site in Village North. Whistler tried to include a hotel or some other commercial development in the arena site to pay for it but WLC wouldn’t re-open the deal. Finally, Nebbeling and his council decided to build the arena, and later the pool, outside the village in Meadow Park. The arena site in Village North remains as a forest.
"We spent a lot of time convincing the provincial government that in order to build an arena in the village, which was going to be about $13 million because we had to provide parking and all that, that we had to have some opportunities to do something above the arena," Nebbeling says. "But the provincial government wouldn't budge in any way shape or form to accommodate that so that's the reason that we started to look outside the village. Because this community wanted an arena.
"And then when we moved outside the village to Alpine Meadows the provincial government was screaming murder."
Nebbeling continues: "Remember, at the time, whenever we did anything, passed bylaws or zoning, we had to go to the provincial government for approval. One of the problems was whenever we did something that was needed, for example development cost charges for employee housing, the WLC would fight that vigorously. There was always that threat that 'well, we'll talk to the minister and see what we can do.' So it was not always a pleasant way of negotiating with them. They had some cards that they wanted to hold over us."
But as Village North was built through the 1990s, the province’s interest in Whistler was gradually winding down. WLC Developments had recovered the money it put up in 1983 and turned a healthy profit on the sale of Village North lands. Municipal Affairs Minister Darlene Marzari finally gave the Resort Municipality of Whistler the right to pass its own bylaws in 1995.
Today, most people see the province’s involvement in Whistler as an astute move.
"You know, although the government put up that money, they got all their money back ten-fold," Chester Johnson says. "That $21 million that Bill Bennett put up for us was paid back in spades."
"The moral of the story in my mind is they got all their money back and then some," Meredith says. "And they got this incredible renewable resource here which has been pouring tax revenue into Victoria ever since."
And the reason Whistler worked and the province got its money back is because the plan was solid right from the beginning.
"I believe that the planning that council and Sutcliffe, Griggs and Moodie et al did in the mid-70s saved their ass," Meredith says. "They did such a good job of conceptualizing where we were going that, you look at their stuff today and compare it with what we’ve got and it’s right on."