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Museum Musings: Selling ideas of the village

e-museum musings 28.32 WMA_P202_1993_0089_WQ
After a back and forth that almost saw the Upper Village fail to get built, the clearing of Lot 29 in Village North began in the late ‘80s.

The Whistler Village is often thought of as a single entity, stretching from the gondolas at the base of Whistler Mountain to Marketplace on Lorimer Road, and for some it includes the Upper Village at the base of Blackcomb Mountain. For those who visit Whistler for the first time, Village North is just as much a part of the village as Village Square or Skier’s Plaza. Village North, however, was built a whole decade after the development of the “original” village had begun and, according to some stories from the late 1980s, the Village North of today was almost not built at all.

When Whistler, like the rest of Canada, was hit by a recession in the early 1980s, Whistler Village was still in the early stages of development. While some buildings were completed and businesses were beginning to open, others had only poured their foundations. In 1983, the provincial government under Premier Bill Bennett established Whistler Land Co. Developments (WLC), a Crown corporation to take over the debts and liabilities of the Whistler Village Land Company. WLC also took over ownership of the Village North lands, which were eventually supposed to provide a return on investment for the province.

The economy slowly recovered and the province and the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) started negotiations in 1986 to return control and assets to the RMOW, including the development of Village North. By 1987, most of the village sites had been completed, the conference centre and golf course were operating, Expo 86 had brought more international exposure, Intrawest had bought Aspen’s interest in Blackcomb Mountain and was beginning to develop the Blackcomb Benchlands, and Canadian Pacific Hotels had announced the $80 million Chateau Whistler Resort.

The relationship between the WLC and the RMOW was not always harmonious. To some, it appeared that the WLC had been sent to “fix the problem” in Whistler and members of the WLC seemed dismissive of the work done and the future ideas for the village. Over time, Chester Johnson, the chair of the WLC board of directors, was persuaded of the merits of Whistler’s original plans for the village, but Kevin Murphy of BC Place Corporation needed more convincing. In a speaker event in 2019, Drew Meredith (mayor of Whistler from 1986 to 1990) recalled that Murphy had decided the WLC was going to cut up Village North into residential lots and sell the lots to developers.

This horrified the RMOW and Meredith called up Lorne Borgal, then the president of Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation, and asked to borrow Eldon Beck. At the time Beck, who had provided much of the vision of the first Whistler Village development, was working for Whistler Mountain on Olympic Meadows plans that never materialized. As Meredith described it, “We injected Eldon into the room with Kevin Murphy and two hours later they came out arm in arm. And what you got is what we got.”

It’s not clear exactly what happened in that meeting, but Beck jokingly described the experience at the same 2019 event: “I just appealed to his good side and so we went into the room together and I talked to him, we sang the Canadian national anthem, hugged, and cried a little bit and came out and the deal was done.” According to Jim Moodie, it was incredibly fortunate for Whistler that Beck got along with Murphy, who was “one of the toughest guys [he] ever worked for.”

An agreement between the province and the RMOW was reached by August 1989 and a detailed plan for the Village North lands had been created. 

Next week, we’ll look more at the development of Village North to the sale of the last lot in 1997.