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Village Pioneers

Longtime businesses weather the Whistler storms and are still standing

Just before 10 a.m. on the sweltering Canada Day long weekend, Ken Davey has already sold some batteries, directed a tourist to the back shelves for the portable barbecues and listened to the bell jingling at his entrance more than a dozen times.

Whistler Hardware hasn't even officially opened for the day yet but it looks as though it's going to be a busy one.

Davey is used to working long weekends and takes it all in stride, weaving through his jam-packed store — past the coffeemakers, the crazy glue, the light bulbs, the board games, the dangly earrings, the postcards — to the office at the back and waves vaguely in the direction of Whistler Mountain.

"We used to watch the skiers ski down the back, there was nothing there. It was pretty neat," he says, but he isn't wistful for the past.

"We watched everything rise around us."

If there's a secret to longtime success for village businesses, only a handful of people can offer a three-decade insight.

They are the village pioneers — still going strong, having weathered recessions, pre-Olympic highs, post-Olympic slumps, the ebb and flow of the American dollar, the meteoric rise of the Internet shopper.

They've seen businesses come and go, crippled by high rents and other resort taxes, bad seasons and a retail landscape that seems to be changing monthly.

The municipality is leading the charge to keep the village relevant with its 'Whistler 3.0' brainstorming initiative.

And yet, here's the thing: village business is very much alive and well in Whistler, despite the challenges.

For 33 years, the Daveys — parents Jack and Hilda and their son Ken — watched the transformation of Whistler Village firsthand, from town dump to world-class four-season resort.

Their vantage point was one of the best little 1,500-sq.-ft. pieces of prime village retail at Village Square, where the village experiment all began.

This is the spot Jack bought to realize his dream of retiring from the armed forces with a little hardware store. What better place to do it than the place they loved to ski?

Little has changed in this store — a throwback to hardware stores of old — a place where you can find pretty much anything you need, even if you didn't realize you needed it.

And yet, there have been massive changes to the retail industry in general.

"I've had some offers on it already," admits Davey. "We're still not really ready yet to retire... You know, the sad thing is that everybody that places an offer on here has really got another idea for this place, right? Which would be really sad to see."

The pressure for change, particularly for those small independents, is relentless but through it all village business owners continue to work hard to stay current and relevant and... alive.


From ski town to four-season resort

It cannot be understated just how critical the role of retail is in Whistler.

Of the $1.3 billion GDP created in the resort, 26 per cent comes from the retail sector — more than $345 million.

In the Davey's world, that's a lot of light bulbs and crazy glue.

So, just how many light bulbs to you need to sell to make ends meet in Whistler?

Business at Whistler Hardware has been steadily growing since the beginning.

"Whistler is getting bigger and bigger, more and more happening all the time," says Davey. "It's just been a great business. That's why we're still here."

The Davey's aren't the only ones.

Some of those family-run businesses that took that leap of faith in the early '80s are still going strong today, able to stand the test of time, through the deep recession of 1982, the bad snow years, and the post-Olympic slump.

Like Jack Davey's dream of retiring with a hardware store, Hazel Ellis dreamed of books.

"She was such a great reader, she devoured books," says son Dan Ellis.

Hazel raised her family in Squamish and when the kids were out of the house, new possibilities in Whistler beckoned.

And so began a little 300-sq.ft. bookstore called Armchair Books in 1981.

"Whistler was a new frontier for new business prospects," says Ellis.

"It was a calculated risk that it would fly and sure enough, it did."

Just up The Stroll, the Carlbergs, too, were banking on Whistler.

Architect James Carlberg designed the Whistler View in 1981. It was one of the buildings that blocked the Davey's mountain view!

After selling the residential units in the building, his wife Frances decided to open a retail store in the bottom called Carlberg Gifts.

"At the time we opened there really wasn't much summer tourism," says Lisa Carlberg-Dew, their daughter, who has been running the store for more than 30 years.

"We had to survive on the ski industry in the winter."

It was a struggle, to say the least, for those fledging village stores.

After a year or two in business, Whistler and Blackcomb were seeing 647,000 skier visits, up from 280,000 in 1978. One thousand brand new hotel and condo beds were just built in the village and 120,000 square feet of commercial space was serving it all.

Flash forward 30 years. There are more than two million skier visits, 8,000 rentable beds, and the commercial floor has ballooned.

Did Jack and Hilda Davey see that future? Did James and Frances Carlberg have a crystal ball into ski resort gift shops? Did Hazel and Phil Ellis think their "optimistic experiment" of a little book store would grow to quadruple in size from its 300sq.ft. roots?

It almost all came to a grinding halt in 1982 as the recession sank into Whistler.

The village development company — the Whistler Land Company — went bankrupt around these fledging businesses, and many others lost their shirts.

But they managed to hold on.

"My dad was sweating bullets over that one, I tell you," says Davey shaking his head. "They invested everything in this place."

Crawling out of the recession, Carlberg-Dew says she began noticing a change in 1986 when the world came to Vancouver for EXPO.

That was the beginning, she says, of the one-season resort changing to a two-season resort. Summer visitors had found Whistler.

But, there were still those long shoulder seasons to contend with, those seemingly interminable months of rain, either waiting for the sun to come out or the snow to start falling.

In the last five years, however, village businesses report a significant change.

That spring shoulder season is gone now replaced with conference traffic and other visitors, making the long wait for summer business almost moot.

Carlberg-Dew says her fiscal year end is May 31 because it was always the dead time of year, time to catch up on the bookwork.

"I wish I could change my fiscal yearend now," she laughs, realizing that it's not a bad problem to have. 

Whistler Village 3.0

 The Village Square, where it all began, has long been the hub of village life. As Whistler Village spread to the north with the development of Marketplace, and then to the east with the Upper Village, the vital core remained along the Village Stroll.

It was planned that way. But it's been changing in recent years.

Foot traffic has been rerouted with the introduction of pay parking and the development of Whistler Olympic Plaza has created a new modern vitality to the north side of the village, with free concerts and a swathe of green space in which to sun in the summer and skate in the winter.

"It's actually turned the village on its head," said Drew Meredith, realtor and former mayor.

The village, as it ages and changes, has been giving planners pause for thought.

When Eldon Beck, the architect who laid out the master plan for the original village, visited Whistler in early 2005, Pique asked how we should protect what is often called the "jewel" of the resort — the village itself.

Beck said: "I think you protect by encouraging continued revitalization. Protecting is almost the wrong word because protecting sounds like you're going to preserve it, box it in and not let it do anything. And it has to maintain life and vitality and evolution and change and creativity and ongoing rejuvenation. If it doesn't do that, then it's going to die. So it's a jewel in process; consider that it's never done."

Beck's words were taken to heart.

The result, among other things, is Whistler Village 3.0 — a municipally driven initiative aimed at supporting the continued evolution and enhancement of the village through collaboration from various stakeholders. It flows from earlier work done by the Business Enhancement Committee just before the 2010 Games.

Councillor John Grills, who has owned village businesses, is the Resort Municipality of Whistler representative and explained the concept.

"What if we don't treat it as one great big village?" he says of the theory behind Whistler 3.0. "What if we break it into pieces so the neighbourhoods can work on their own identity?"

The project looks at nine distinct Village neighbourhoods, Marketplace, Main Street, Whistler Olympic Plaza, Upper Village, Town Plaza, Village Commons, Village Stroll and Village Square, Mountain Square and Skiers Plaza.

The idea is to bring stakeholders together — business owners, landlords, strata managers, property managers and the municipality and look at ways at making the place special and distinct, ways to make people linger a little longer.

One of the biggest spin-offs is to get people talking, brainstorming, thinking about the collective.

"An activity like that is important," agrees Meredith.

Laughs Grills: "The muni can't do everything, though some people would like it some days."

Meredith, who has long been involved in leasing commercial space in the village, talks about how there are good village locations for business, and the not so choice spots too.

"Anything on the stroll is bombproof," he says.

But what about those locations that have challenges?

He points to the new Purebread bakery/café on the edge of Whistler Olympic Plaza. With a big stone planter blocking the entrance, that location, long home to an art gallery, had its problems enticing people inside.

When Purebread took over about a month ago, one of the conditions of taking over the lease was that the planter be cut in half, allowing free access to the front door.

"Purebread took a B space and made it an A space," says Meredith.

And look what has happened.

For the past month there has been a steady stream of customers lining up for coffee and homemade decadent treats at the 1,100 sq.ft., long vacant store.

"The landlords approached us and said they had a space and they'd like us to go into it, and we thought it was a big leap and we were afraid to do it but we're really glad we did," says owner Paula Lamming. "It was the right decision for sure."

In just those few short weeks the one little shop has added to the vitality of Village North.

"The 'little guy' is coming back in," says Lamming, referring to the difficulty of the independents competing with chains.

"It's nice to see."


Handing over the reins

While Armchair Books, Whistler Hardware and Carlberg Gifts have managed to keep it in the family, there is another shift taking place as new owners take over from the originals.

Take Ingrid's Village Café, the oldest café in Whistler, next to Whistler Hardware.

Ken Davey said it was his mom Hilda who first got that business off the ground.

"The idea of the deli was to get the hardware store on its feet, which it did," recalls Davey. "My mom didn't really enjoy making sandwiches for everybody but it was something she had to do in the beginning; she grinned and bared it. And when the time was right she sold the deli."

Ingrid Morgan took over in 1986, tempting customers with her German cuisine

For years the café remained in Ingrid's family.

Ten years ago, business partners Fiona Minton and Nancy MacConnachie bought into the business.

They have changed little in the decade they've been running it, following the credo: "why mess with a good thing?"

"John (Ingrid's son) was quite adamant that he wanted to sell to someone that was going to keep the tradition alive," said MacConnachie.

He spent a month teaching them the homemade recipes, showing them the ins and outs of running a busy little café, with fresh sandwiches made from scratch on the spot in 400 sq. ft.

While retail accounts for 26 per cent of Whistler's GDP, the food and beverage sector accounts for 15 per cent, or $194 million of the $1.3 billion GDP.

It's a significant part of the village experience.

Just this week a tourist came back to Ingrid's on the hope that the "best veggie burger ever" was still available.

It was — the Superior Veggie Burger.

Exactly the same.

There have been a few tweaks to the menu to adapt to the changing trends — adding spice to Ingrid's original recipes like pesto sauce and spicy mayo — and meeting changing health movements.

"The biggest change has been modifying recipes to be gluten free," says Minton.

But with prime Village Square location, the deli is a hotbed of activity, particularly in the summer.

The Secret to Success

It would be easy to put the success of these small independents all down to their locations.

To be true, these oldest stores are on the fringe of one of Whistler's busiest public squares.

But that would belie the work that's involved in running a business in a resort town, where business has often precariously hinged on good weather, a strong American dollar and global wealth.

Recent research reveals the destination visitor accounts for 68 per cent of spending in the resort, followed by the regional visitor at 19 per cent. In other words, tourists account for 85 to 90 per cent of the total spend in Whistler.

They are crucial to the success of Whistler Hardware, Armchair Books, Carlberg's Gifts, Ingrid's Café and others.

And so, the owners have adapted accordingly to changes in the market.

Carlberg-Dew, for example, is at trade shows at least four times a year looking for unique products.

She is focused on bringing in gifts that represent Whistler or Canada in general, particularly those "made in Canada."

"We're gearing toward the new market for China," she says. "They're looking for product that's made in Canada."

Ellis, too, at Armchair has switched up his inventory significantly in recent years to battle the massive changes in the book industry.

Where once the kids' book section was at the back of the store, it's now expanded front and centre with more gifts geared to kids than ever before.

Ellis sells journals and cards and educational toys, all to offset the loss in revenue from books.

Through it all is the hard work involved in running a business.

Davey says it's a passion.

"It takes a lot to work this store," he admits. "You've got to have your heart in it. And you've got to be prepared to put the time in and the devotion. That's what makes it run."

So, while Davey may not be able to see skiers coming down Whistler Mountain any longer, things are still looking good from his vantage point.

His dad's dream of a little hardware store on which to retire is still very alive. And doing very well indeed.