As the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) is finally moving ahead with a strategy for cannabis retail, storefronts could be open for business by mid-to-late 2022 (pending provincial and municipal approval processes)—and there is no shortage of interest at municipal hall.
Since Canada officially legalized cannabis in October 2018, the RMOW has received more than 200 inquiries from potential retailers to a dedicated email account set up for cannabis.
With its approximately 3 million annual visitors (pre-pandemic), it’s easy to see the appeal.
Vancouver-based cannabis company Eden Empire is among the hundreds who have expressed interest, and the company even held a pair of information sessions in the resort in January 2020.
One of the main comments they heard from local residents through that process was a concern that larger companies would take opportunities away from locals, said president Kolt Taekema.
“It’s an opportunity for regular people to get a foot up, so I think the position that we would look at entertaining moving forward is building relationships with the local people who want to get into the industry,” he said.
Eden operates cannabis stores in B.C. and Manitoba, and is going to be expanding into Michigan, Taekema said, adding that the company would like to lend its expertise to local entrepreneurs in Whistler.
Taekema likened the approach to a franchise model, “but more on the side of a partnership relationship—so we would do all the training, we would help with curation, we would help with branding, applications, all that sort of stuff,” he said.
“We would essentially back them up in whatever way they needed so that they could stay involved and stay relevant within the industry, and not just get swallowed up by the bigger players right away due to lack of experience.”
With so much interest from near and far, the RMOW has its work cut out for it in deciding who actually gets to open up shop in Whistler.
“The RMOW is creating a consideration framework that enables fair evaluation of all applications received,” a municipal spokesperson said. “The guidance of the Official Community Plan will be the starting point for this framework.”
Taekema said he hopes the municipality leans more toward local operators and small businesses than big companies.
“The best case for smaller towns like this is where they invest in their local people, and then make sure that they have the right experience to see this business model through properly, and run effectively,” he said.
Whistler’s mayor and council heard a presentation from staff outlining the proposed regulatory approach at the Dec. 7 council meeting.
RMOW staff is recommending a Temporary Use Permit (TUP) approach, which could be implemented faster than a rezoning while allowing municipal discretion over where and when shops open up in the resort.
“The TUP approach retains that discretionary approval of each retail location on a case-by-case basis, and that’s balanced with a reasonable or lighter burden on the applicant and potential for a relatively quicker processing and approval timeline,” said manager of planning John Chapman in a presentation to council.
The TUPs would authorize cannabis stores for an initial three-year period, with an option to be renewed for another three years. After six years, the RMOW could consider site-specific zoning to authorize the use permanently.
At that point, the change in land use would be tied to the location rather than the operator, Chapman noted.
The proposed framework would require an amendment to the RMOW’s zoning bylaw to create designated areas for the cannabis TUPs. Staff is proposing to allow one cannabis retail location in each of Function Junction and Creekside, and two locations in Whistler Village. Nesters Plaza may also be considered.
“We see this as allowing a distribution across the community to facilitate access, but it will also limit proliferation,” Chapman said.
“[We want to] get enough stores, but we want to maintain that really vibrant and diverse commercial sector.”
Aside from the municipal level of approval, all retail stores would also be subject to the provincial licencing process through the Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch, Chapman noted.
Staff will undertake a two-step public engagement process in early 2022 prior to presenting the proposed framework to council later in the year.
Councillor John Grills wondered what role stratas would play in the approval process, to which Chapman noted part of the provincial process would include approval of the building owner.
“This may be a good time to have another [commercial landlords meeting] … It will be interesting to make them aware of all these details,” Grills said.
“It’s a little more complicated than having a retail store open up.”
Whistler passed a zoning amendment bylaw in early 2018 prohibiting the retail sale of cannabis, allowing local officials to control where and when pot shops are introduced to the resort.
Part of the reasoning for the delay was to allow RMOW staff time to see how the rollout worked in other locations.
Communities that have taken a TUP approach include Tofino, Cumberland, Duncan, White Rock, Langford and West Vancouver, Chapman said.
“We’ve spoken, in some cases, to staff, certainly reviewed their materials and so on,” he said.
“We are in a fortunate position of being able to learn from what other municipalities have done.”
Find more info at whistler.ca/cannabisretail.