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Cinema closure deals another blow to sleepy corner of Whistler Village

Property owner now has tall order of filling 33,000-sq.ft. space—which it has left partially vacant for more than 20 years
WIth this month’s closure of Village 8 Cinemas, property owner Larco Investments is tasked with filling 33,000 square feet in the heart of the village—for the right concept.

It’s Village 8 Cinemas last night in operation, and Brad Nichols has a decision to make: Whitney Houston biopic or Puss in Boots: The Last Wish?

“Everything else is sold out,” he said, resigned to his fate.

For the Whistler Museum director and film buff, Thursday, Jan. 5 marked the last chance to take in a movie at the local cinema—something he and his partner have done on a near-weekly basis for the past eight years—before it shuttered its doors for good.

“It was just a great activity. Hopefully someone picks up the torch and keeps going with it,” Nichols said. “It’s that kind of communal experience that there’s not a lot of left in Whistler.”

Imagine Cinemas confirmed last month it would close the resort’s lone movie theatre on Jan. 6, which the Ontario company has operated since 2015, when it took over from L.A.-based Metropolitan Theatres.

Citing challenges around staffing, employee housing, and difficulties managing a theatre from three time zones away, Imagine Cinemas COO Gina Facca told Pique last month that the company had “exhausted all of our ideas on how to make this work.”

Losing the only cinema for miles around is another blow to an entertainment-starved sports town that already had a relative lack of weather-independent offerings before Village 8 announced its closure.

“The fact that we’re losing one of the only things you can do here besides drink is a little upsetting,” said Connor, who was visiting Village 8 for the first (and last) time on Thursday night (and who declined to give his last name). “I always thought there should be a bowling alley here. I feel like it would do really well.”

Connor is, of course, not the first to think a bowling alley would be a good fit for that corner of the village.

For a handful of years around the turn of the millennium, the AlpenRock—an entertainment facility containing a bowling alley, games, restaurant and bar—operated out of the underground space where Village 8 now sits. (The cinema takes up a portion of the space that AlpenRock operated out of.)

In a sign of some of the challenges to befall Village 8, the AlpenRock was “plagued by licensing and zoning issues, high staff turnover—even theft,” according to a 2001 Pique article detailing how the property’s owner, West Vancouver-based Larco Investments, had seized the space from AlpenRock’s parent company, MagiCorp Entertainment Inc., over unpaid rent.

At the time, a Larco representative told Pique the real estate investment firm was hopeful to reopen the space “very soon,” with several interested parties waiting in the wings.

Twenty years later, and, aside from the cinema, the space has sat vacant ever since.

“We continue to look at other options,” said Rick Amantea, Larco’s VP of community partnerships and development. “We want to lease the space as much as people want to see it leased. But it comes back to: how do we find the right operator for the narrow parameters of the zoning?”

Calling the current zoning “overly prescriptive,” Amantea said it has been difficult finding a concept that would align with the space’s list of permitted uses, which include a movie theatre, restaurant and indoor recreation, as well as for entertainment purposes, as long as at least 50 per cent of the gross floor area within the strata lot is dedicated for a hotel or auxiliary use.

“The long and short of it is, if there are operators out there that can find a way to make it work, we’re happy to talk to them about it,” he said. “Beyond that, we’re going to have to sit down and have a real candid conversation with the municipality to do something with the zoning and make the space more viable.”

Larco did have a concept it was in favour of back in 2018, when National Beerhall Inc., a division of Calgary-based Concorde Entertainment Group, proposed a 616-seat bowling alley, game centre, restaurant, lounge and patio across two levels. While the concept drew mostly positive reactions from locals, both elected officials and the resort’s bar and restaurant sector sounded alarm bells over the project’s size and scope, leading to questions of where the proponents would find and house the dozens of staff the business would require.

More recently, Amantea said Larco entertained a concept that he described as “a combination retail-experiential space” for the vacant upper level as well as a portion of the lower level that ultimately fell through when COVID-19 hit in early 2020.

“It was something we were very bullish on and felt in many ways would be something that the skiing, snowboarding, cycling and hiking market would find a very cool operation,” he noted. “The world being what it is, it just didn’t come together.”

Revitalizing a quiet corner of Whistler Village

That particular corner of Whistler Village, known officially as Village Common, has proven a difficult zone to animate in recent years, even before the pandemic arrived. 

In late 2019, the Blackcomb Way Starbucks announced it was closing, adding another vacancy to the already sparsely populated commercial area. A handful of other businesses have since come and gone from Village Common, and by and large, retailers have indicated high rental rates don’t reflect the level of foot traffic the area gets. “I think businesses would go in there if the lease rate properly reflected the store traffic, but I think that landlord wants to get [Village] Stroll rates in there,” said Rene Gauthier in 2019, founder of ecologyst (formerly Sitka), which rented a space from Larco next to Village 8 for a time.

“It’s an issue across B.C., across Canada, where landlords don’t want their rates to drop because then they can’t borrow as much money against that property. They’re incentivized to have nobody in there rather than see their lease rate drop because all of a sudden their borrowing power drops with that.”

For his part, Amantea said Larco is keen to fill the space, but added that finding the right tenant isn’t likely to happen in the short term.

“We need some patience in terms of how and if we can either repurpose the space and/or find the right operator to maybe do a portion or all of the cinema space as an ongoing operator, but deals of this size and intricacies don’t happen overnight and we just have to put our heads down and work with the municipality, work with the community and work with operators to see if any of this makes sense,” he said, noting it is Larco’s preference to deal with one tenant for the entire space, but it is open to dual tenancy for the right project.

Whatever the right concept is, it is clear Larco—one of Canada’s largest and deepest-pocketed private real estate firms—is willing to sit on the space, as it has for more than two decades, even if it means losing money (Amantea would not say how much the company has spent on the vacant space over the years).

Village Common “likely needs a key tenant that can attract customers to that zone,” posited Whistler Chamber of Commerce executive director Louise Walker. “Do I know what that is? I don’t. It’s an interesting spot because there’s a really great plaza there that a good tenant could make use of.”

In considering an anchor tenant that could take over the entire 33,000-sq.-ft. space, Councillor Jeff Murl said a project of that size would be “unique” for the village and would present significant risk to a proponent.

“Someone would have to take a big chance on that and risk a lot of money to see if that kind of concept would work. Because that’s what it is, a shot in the dark,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of local operators in a position to take that on. Someone coming from out of town who doesn’t know the marketplace, they would just be taking a swing for the fences. People just aren’t doing that these days.”