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Opinion: Does Whistler need a bowling alley?

Let's dream big for a hot sec
With Whistler Village's movie theatre now closed, the space that used to house a bowling alley, cinema and restaurant is officially unoccupied. What kind of business would you like to see open up shop?

A few times each shift, I’ll inevitably get asked some variation of the same question from a few different tables I’m serving, usually as I’m handing over the credit card machine.

“What’s fun to do in Whistler tonight?”

Usually I’ll rattle off a few of the spots in the village I think have the best music, the best cocktails, the best beer lists, the best overall vibes, depending on what they’re looking for. Occasionally I’ll offer some guidance about whether Cows ice cream is really worth waiting in line for.

The question becomes more difficult to answer when it’s coming from a family with kids, or anyone who has made it abundantly clear that their plans for the evening don’t include heading underground.

There’s Vallea Lumina, or an escape room if that’s your thing; the Scandinave Spa is open until 9 p.m., and in the winter there’s the skating rink at Olympic Plaza and cross-country skiing at Lost Lake until 8 p.m. Axe throwing, if you’re willing to drive to Function. There was the cinema, until that closed earlier this month. Otherwise, I’m stumped.

I know the movie theatre shutting down represents the loss of one of the last affordable evening activities for a lot of people in town, especially families. It’s also reviving the conversation about the need for more weather-independent entertainment options in the resort. (Anyone remember the time a pre-Vail Whistler Blackcomb planned to build a water park? Or the time there actually was a water park at the base of Whistler?)

As Pique reported last week, the theatre’s closure also means the massive, 33,000-square-foot commercial space in that corner of the village that has remained partially vacant for more than two decades, owned by West Vancouver-based real estate firm Larco Investments, just got even bigger and emptier.

But Village 8’s eight screens and rows of fold-down seats were already underutilizing that space. It might have beat watching Netflix on a laptop screen from your couch, but realistically, Village 8 couldn’t offer the same kind of experience as the massive theatres with IMAX screens, fully-stocked bars, motion seats, and probably pumped-in scents at this point. (This might be a good time to admit that I haven’t been to a movie theatre since well before the pandemic started.)

So what should go down there, taking into account the commercial space’s strict zoning limitations?

A poll on Pique’s website asked that question last week. Here’s what readers had to say:

Cinema  25.84 per cent

Bowling Alley  30.73 per cent

Restaurant and bar  1.56 per cent

Skating rink  1.78 per cent

Mini-putting course  2.90 per cent

All of the above  22.94 per cent

Nightclub 1.56 per cent

Wave pool  6.46 per cent

Other  3.56 per cent

Nothing, it should stay empty 2.67 per cent

Bowling wins! Should be easy enough, especially considering there’s still a few abandoned lanes somewhere down there, leftover from the bowling alley that used to operate in the space back in the day, right?

Apparently that's not the case. Another company tried to make it happen a few years ago, but met opposition from the resort’s hospitality industry, which cited concerns about the need for more staff in a town already struggling with an employee shortage.

The proponent, Calgary-based Concorde Entertainment Group, ended up pulling the proposal.

Fair enough, but still, it seems unbelievably wild that a massive piece of property in one of the most prestigious commercial areas in Canada can sit empty indefinitely, even with the challenges any operator would face when committing to such a massive project.

So let’s dream big for a hot sec.

That space could house some solid entertainment options that aren’t limited to sitting at a table and drinking. Like three bigger cinema screens instead of eight smaller ones, with the full VIP experience and 4D-moving seats, for example. (Are cheap Tuesday nights still a thing for those theatres?)

Or lean into Whistler’s status as an action-sports hub and throw in a few skate ramps. Or a go-kart track. Or indoor golf. A lazy river, a standing wave and a pool with a couple of slides?

Or, just give the people what they want and bring back a bowling alley.

It’s pretty clear from the traffic on the Sea to Sky highway every Friday and Sunday afternoon that Whistler doesn’t need new attractions to draw in visitors. But with good weather becoming less of a guarantee, and an empty space three-quarters the size of the Conference Centre sitting a few steps from Whistler Blackcomb’s lifts, using that space to give locals and visitors another way to spend a rainy evening doesn’t seem like the worst idea.

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