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Is Function Junction Whistler's SoHo?

Cultural tourism expert sees bright, artistic future for industrial park

There's an electrical box on the south side of Alpha Lake Road a few metres from the highway. It's been painted with pink and blue swirls and it's the only indication that the potential for a hip neighbourhood -- let's call it the New Funky Function - is brewing.

Millions of visitors pass by Function at least twice every year and yet most have no what treasures it hides. While offerings are modest right now, there's little question they will multiply. The colours on the electrical box have faded with time and weather, but they are still a beacon that there's something unique percolating in Function Junction.

For years the neighbourhood has been virtually neglected by the municipality but embraced by Whistler entrepreneurs hoping to set up shop outside the expensive town core. It's gritty, underdeveloped, dusty and one of the few spots in town not conceived under some grand design. To many, it has been and forever will be Whistler's industrial heartland, but for an increasing number of artists, entrepreneurs and interested locals, Function Junction could be the place to combat the homogeneity of Whistler Village.

"I think a lot of business owners and tourists, and locals, are very disenchanted with the village and have been for quite a long time," says Karen Buchanan, co-owner of Function's antique furniture store, Daily Planet.

She came to Function 14 years ago when every other store was industrial. The RMOW paid it no mind. There wasn't even a traffic light at the highway turnoff.

Once Daily Planet had established itself, Buchanan and her partner, Martin Savage, set up a second shop in the village, which operated successfully for seven years. It closed two years ago once the lease came and they decided to focus on the Function location. The truth was, she says, she never felt at home in the village. Function was real - a local's only hangout.

"My dream for Function Junction has always been that it will be like a Granville Island, where you could actually have a live-work space for artists," says Buchanan.

She has noticed more artists' studios, restaurants and other independent business owners, unable to afford the escalating rent prices of the village, setting up shop at the south end of town. Slowly, a community has been growing. Like the electrical box, it's subtle but it's there.

This inspired Steven Thorne, the consultant who authored Whistler's controversial cultural tourism development strategy last year, to label Function "Whistler's Soho."

Of course, Function could never be Soho, of London, England fame. London has centuries of cultural evolution, which has allowed Soho to flourish as it has. Thorne, hired by the RMOW to aid in the development of cultural tourism strategy, never recommended that Function mimic Soho, but rather that Whistler should nurture it to become what it's already on its way to becoming - a creative cultural centre. Like Soho, and New York's East Village and now Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Function Junction is a former cultural wasteland where artists and small businesses congregate thanks to cheaper rent. Like Soho, it could become hip if it's allowed to.

"Function is a mixed-use precinct that feels organic, funky, and 'unplanned,'" Thorne wrote in an email to Pique . "Its character and sense of place is very different from the village. With its cluster of artist studios, one-of-a-kind eateries, and manufacturers of artisanal products, Function brings an entirely different dimension to the visitor experience. Cultural tourists love places like Function. They're unique, authentic, and alive."

Thorne's $60,000 report, A Tapestry of Place paid from the 2006 Cultural Capitals of Canada federal grant, has been a divisive topic since its release last October, with some hailing it as a saviour of Whistler's tourism economy and others writing it off as a pipe dream. The report is basically a summation of what the community had already been thinking, collected and compiled into one document, and for that it is valuable. Now what that means exactly is up for discussion but whatever Function evolves into, it is doubtful that it will resemble any London neighbourhood.

Still, this won't stop people from dreaming. The owners of the Whistler Brewing Company, which originally started in Function only to pack up for the city, returned to the neighbourhood last year with the belief that a funkified Function is a definite possibility.

"We've got some of the vibe now, but we need more," says Bruce Dean, co-owner of the Whistler Brewing Company. He's talking a Granville Island-style market area, geared first toward locals. When that happens, the tourists will follow.

Whistler's Official Community Plan defines the village as the economic core of Whistler and all planning is meant to support that, but Dean argues Function Junction would serve to diversify what the town has to offer, both for visitors and locals.

"It adds and doesn't detract," says Bruce Dean. "If you look at what we do in the village, it's oriented around tourists here for a stay. The day skiers - let's be blunt about it - they ski, get off the hill, have one pint and they go. The visitors who come from L.A.... are what provide the life for the village. If we can create a Granville Island, we give the day skiers a reason to stay a day longer and you give people a reason to come up completely independently and incrementally to skiing or golfing."

He notes that downhill biking did just that when the bike park opened. What was once strictly a ski town has incrementally become a mountain bike Mecca. The same can happen, will happen, if done right, for the arts if an original concept for Function Junction is created.

How it will look will likely be one of the key components of the Cultural Tourism Development Strategy (CTDS) once these discussions start happening. The Cultural Tourism Advisory Group (CTAG), the group responsible for overseeing the strategy and putting into practice Thorne's recommendations, is currently recruiting new members to widen its scope and, typical of municipal politics, the strategy is plodding slowly along. So far there's only talk and no official Function-specific development strategy in place.

Drew Meredith, former mayor and current Whistler Real Estate agent, says that zoning is the single biggest issue for Function Junction, and before this "new Soho thing" takes off it must be addressed.

He knows the lay of the land. His name is taped to the windows of many of the vacant shops in Function. He helped develop Function into an industrial park in the early 1980s and he's seen all the businesses that have come and gone. The future, he says, ain't in the arts.

"I think it could be a lot of things but I don't think it's going to be a centre of the arts, okay? I just don't see that happening, but it is interesting to hear some high paid consultant saying that," says Meredith. "We've had artists trying to locate in Function from time to time, but they never last. So what's going to change?"

The zoning, established in 1983, has never been updated and allows only for personal services to exist on the top floor to allow for industrial use on the ground floor.

One exception is for pet grooming, which means a pet owner can cut his dog's hair on the ground floor but has to head upstairs for his own trim.

For years, shop owners and artists have appealed to the municipality to change the zoning for live-work space to be provided. Expensive studies have been requested and completed but so far, nothing has happened.

The majority of business in Function is light industrial and serves as the industrial spine of the town. Meredith and his partners developed it that way in the early 1980s as the town grew. Function's businesses are vital to the local economy during shoulder seasons.

"So much money is pumped into Function, just in automotive alone, let alone all the warehousing and this and that," says Brad Thomas, a car dealer at Fine Motorcars in Function. "Every town has to have a zone like this. To keep the whole thing flowing, you have to have this. You take this away and you have all that?" he asks, gesturing north, toward the village. "They can barely float that themselves."

For this reason, Meredith is critical of Thorne's entire study, especially the Function-as-Soho observation. As a man in the trenches of Function every day, he sees few signs of this cultured and "alive" neighbourhood Thorne speaks about.

Meredith says: "I'm standing out on Alpha Lake every day waiting for this business to arrive. They've moved in. Their places are furnished. Where is this business? There is nothing. I don't mean to be critical here. I firmly believe this is a possibility ... But it's not happening."

The problem could be is a lack of product. A good indicator of a business that will draw crowds is Purebread, Whistler's newest retail superstar. Between Wednesday and Sunday, the tiny bakery is bustling with activity - a steady stream at all hours proving that if there's a quality product provided, people will come from all over to get it.

Yves Wenger, owner of Mountain Design in Function, says the product and how the creators of that product market their businesses, will determine how the neighbourhood evolves and how people react to it. With its experimental take on classic baked goods, Purebread is a testament to Whistler's appetite for the kind of irreverence and homegrown quality proponents of the New Funky Function are talking about.

"To me, it's going to take more than just a sign to say that we are now artisan friendly," Wenger says.

Wenger says that Whistler has talented, creative people with nowhere to set up shop. This hurts both the artists/artisans and potential buyers of their art and, by extension, the whole town.

"It's hard for small artists and artisans to make it but if you're going to slap them with a huge rent, it's just not going to happen," he says.

For years he dreamt about building a massive artisans market in a lot behind his Function home and workshop. He also had planned to set up a live-work space for an artisan at his own home - a renovated cabin attached to his workshop that, loaded with obscure paintings, stained-glass windows and other artisan wares, is a vision of what the whole of Function could look like. He admits he lacked the entrepreneurial ambition to build such a market and now, a new industrial complex is being built on that lot, yet another "monstrosity," in Wenger's words. He says a market, or at least the option of live-work space in Function, is vital to cultivating the New Funky Function.

The man behind the new development is Don Wensley, owner of Millar Creek Developments. His building conjures visions of an industry loving man, scoffing at Wenger's wild daydreams of an artisans market. Instead, Wensley supports an open market for artisans but not in the location Wenger has dreamed about. He even has ideas of where a 40,000 square foot market could go. It will be visible from the street "where artists and tourists alike can wander by the front of their space, and we need one building for all the artists to have their own little space," he says. And it will be very successful.

"I feel the arts is the one unexplored asset that we have in Whistler, and the golf and the skiing will not sustain us forever," Wensley says. "If the arts become a serious, important part of our life, it will draw and hold more tourists than we have today."

This year, when the Whistler Arts Council (WAC) throws its annual Block Party for ArtWalk, it will attempt to contain the festivities on Millar Creek Road. In past years, the party has spread over the whole of Function, with pedestrians spread out over a kilometer to visit the few businesses at the north end, when a majority of the New Funky Function businesses are at the south end.

What the arts council is unintentionally addressing is the concept of two Functions, with the south evolving into a retail and epicurean hub while the north end remains the industrial backbone of the community. Most of the independent retail is located at the south end anyway, and nearly everyone interviewed for this story suggested that whatever cultural enterprise is created will be centered on Millar Creek Road.

"There is real potential but it requires someone who's not trying to run a business or pay bills or employ people to get the vision in their head," Dean from Whistler Brewery says, "like a councillor who can be a bit of bulldog and not be concerned about what people say and keep on pushing it at the municipal level."

An official business association is needed to lobby the municipality. There's been some talk about this among Function business owners but so far no one's stepped forward to take the initiative. The RMOW itself would need to approach Function as something other than the dirty part of town.

"The quasi-industrial is going to go," says Nigel Woods, owner of Coast Mountain Excavations (CME), which is moving to the new Mons development within the year. "You could do a lot of things down here, but it's just a process of time, really."

He believes if the New Funky Function is going to happen, there would need to be sidewalks, storm drains and streetlights, none of which exists. The drainage is shoddy and the whole neighbourhood is rather unseemly. For some people, that's the charm, but, says Woods, it could be better. CME rebuilt Lake Placid Rd., a "horrible-looking place" that was changed overnight. Now it's as pedestrian friendly as anywhere else in town, with landscaping, sidewalks and, most important, character. It cost about $1 million but Woods says it changed the area completely.

Mayor Ken Melamed supports the idea of a funkified Function and believes its already moving in that direction. His concern is one of gentrification - if the municipality moves in and upgrades the area, it could drive market rates up.

"There's an argument to have safer pedestrian access and maybe some subtle lighting but that's the part we need to ensure in my view to maintain affordability and diversity and not have the uses eliminated down there that are making it affordable and diverse, because that would require that we provide an alternate site for those uses," he says.

The Daily Planet's Buchanan says municipal involvement could completely defile what's been cultivated as a direct result of municipal neglect.

"We're worried that the municipality is going to step in and get involved with what it should be, what it is in the village," she says. "We don't want that. Function's been forgotten for so long that we've been allowed to do things that you're not allowed to do in the village that are illegal, like the sandwich boards and things like that."

She says she's already noticed more people milling about the neighbourhood now more than ever before - stroller-rolling mothers, couples with dogs, teenaged girls scoring Purebread for their families - which is why Doti Niedermeyer, WAC's executive director, argues nothing needs to be "created" in Function. Whatever happens will happen organically. There's a new neighbourhood to the east, Cheakamus Crossing, with 1,500 new residents and another to the north, Spring Creek, with a brand new Valley Trail extension leading to Function. It will evolve out of necessity.

"When you want to go out at night for a coffee or a drink, you don't necessarily want to get in your car and drive," says Niedermeyer. "That's how neighbourhoods are created. Like in Soho or the Downtown Eastside, first you need to live there and then all the cafes open, and all the stores and the restaurants."

She adds, "Regardless of anything, it will happen just because people who live in neighbourhoods want to hang out in their neighbourhood. I just think that's normal human behaviour."

But Whistler's suffering economy means that people are looking for quick answers, which means that there may be a bit more insistence from the public to create something rather than let evolve.

But Niedermeyer says the CTDS was never meant to create a cultural tourism hotspot overnight but to aid in Whistler's own cultural development over an extended period. Cultures can only grow organically and what the strategy aims to do is lubricate that process so it can actually happen, so that when it does come - and no one can say for certain when that will be - it will be a uniquely Whistler culture.

In the meantime, the RMOW with the help of WAC will ramp up programming through the RMOW's Festival, Events and Animation program. This will merely be the tattoo on the town - an attractive diversion while the town's true artistic, creative and cultural character takes its time to grow. It's already there, but there needs to be a space for a community that will allow it to thrive. Function Junction may very well aid in this process.

"If there was a little melting pot, I find that creativity kind of bubbles off beyond you, so if you actually hang around creative people, you see all the amazing stuff that they're doing and it sparks your own creativity and makes you think about things in a different way," says Whistler artist Chili Thom, who sat on the CTDS advisory board as Function Junction's representative. "If you're hanging out in your basement, you're not really soaking up any external sources for your creativity."

Colour is vital to widening Function's appeal and drawing in tourists on their way in or out of town. All anyone sees from the highway is evidence of Function's industrial heritage.

Thom suggests that instead of getting rid of the flags the RMOW uses to beautify the village, send them to Function to lead people in, like a rainbow trailing to a pot of gold. There's whole team of artists that are just waiting for the day when they can beautify the neighbourhood with murals, signs, whatever. Money is a problem and it's the only reason Thom and other artists haven't started yet.

At this point, the possibilities are endless and there's enough imagination in this town to run completely wild with ideas, ideas that are built on, again and again, starting with a little painted mailbox at the mouth of the neighbourhood.